Outside the Government 11 (Attack of the Graske)

(63 comments)


For only the second time ever, December 25th, 2005 featured the debut of two separate new episodes of Doctor Who. Immediately after The Christmas Invasion viewers were invited to press the red button and thus to watch Attack of the Graske, an interactive Doctor Who story in which viewers take on the role of the companion in stopping an alien invasion.

Attack of the Graske had no real prospect of being a conventionally good Doctor Who episode, nor of being a conventionally good piece of interactive fiction. This is less a factor of the people involved with it than it is a basic medial limit: the BBC Red Button service is not actually sophisticated enough, and the amount of footage they can actually afford to film with David Tennant for a throwaway like this is not actually high enough to make this work. And so what we get is about ten minutes of footage, virtually none of it actually involving Tennant (who does all his scenes from the TARDIS, meaning this was probably shot in about a lunch break), in which there’s not so much interaction as a series of tests you’re graded on. Only the final scene allows you to make a decision that affects the plot, and it divides squarely into a good ending and a bad ending.

All of which is seems a spectacularly churlish set of things to say about something with the sole purpose in life of allowing children to have their very own Doctor Who adventures. I mean, the point of this is being invited onto the TARDIS to be a companion, right? And the Doctor saying he might come back for you? And your remote getting linked with the sonic screwdriver? It’s pure fantastic glee, isn’t it?

Well, no. Probably not. I mean, children aren’t stupid. They get how the red button works. They understand the difference between fiction and reality. And they’ve played enough video games to tell a good one from a bad one. This is firmly within an aesthetic they’re familiar with. Admittedly being Doctor Who probably wins some substantive points from a fair number of kids, and it’s not as though Attack of the Graske is an outright bad game. Indeed, we should remember that as originally conceived it’s not a game at all but an interactive episode of television. This is more Silence in the Library than Call of Duty 2. It had a specific airtime in which it could be watched, and is controlled with a TV remote.

We should detour briefly here to explain the technology, as there are Americans around. The “red button” is more or less exactly what it sounds like, and launches a service that was then called BBC Red Button, but now goes with the marginally less intuitive name “BBCi,” the vowel standing for “interactive.” The service is the technological heir to the late, lamented Ceefax, a 1970s form of interactive television that gave news headlines and allowed several rudimentary games to be played. Ceefax was not what you would call hi-fi - the graphics were definitely 70s/80s quality computer graphics, and there was only so much it could do. But it was interactive television - I remember a family vacation in the 90s where I discovered Ceefax and thought it outright magic. Nothing like it existed in the US, and still doesn’t, really. (It’s an artifact of the glorious experimentalism that was still in place at the BBC up until the 1990s - the same thing that brought you the Radiophonic Workshop and the strange soundscapes that haunted Doctor Who prior to the John Nathan-Turner era. And, for that matter, that brought you Delia Derbyshire.)

By 2005 it was an altogether fancier affair capable of more technological sophistication. But still not that much more, all told. Attack of the Graske has about as much complexity as a DVD game, if you’ve ever encountered one of that odd breed. It’s more or less on the technological level of Dragon Lair, though, to its credit, unlike Dragon Lair it’s not an absurdly finicky and difficult game that inspires nothing so much as rage in the player. Still, this just isn’t that inspiring a bit of technology. It’s neat, and may even have a few quite good things you can do with it, but the “interactive movie” genre that Attack of the Graske fits into has not exactly been a stunning and memorable genre known for its remarkable effect upon the world. Attack of the Graske was probably about as good as it could be, and, though it’s preserved in amber on the BBC website, was always designed as a fun ten minute diversion on Christmas.

But this is a dangerous line of argument, coming perilously close to suggesting that Attack of the Graske works because its status as unrepeatable time-sensitive entertainment - one last bit of fun at Christmas - means that it doesn’t have to be that great. If it can avoid being a satsuma then it’s a winner. Ah, the joys of low expectations, basically.

This is not really a criticism of anyone involved in this specific production. The puzzles are mostly reasonably kid-friendly and of a difficulty level that matches a good old-fashioned puzzle book. It’s not perfect - the first one, in which you have two camera views to monitor as you look for a detail that only appears on one, is a bit unfair - but it’s pretty good. The ending is positively delightful, with its quiet prioritizing of saving a family’s Christmas over beating the bad guy.

But this, in its own way, highlights the underlying futility of the exercise. The ending relies on a relatively high level of genre awareness. One has to remember the captured family from the start of the story (though one gets a clue in this direction as you see them teleported into the Graske’s collection), and to realize that under the basic ethics of Doctor Who saving them by picking the “return everyone to where they came from” option is much more important than shutting down the Graske’s operation. To win the game one must, in other words, have internalized both the ethics and plot logic of Doctor Who, since the explanation of what the two options mean is done at terribly high speed.

But that sort of familiarity is the same reason why the story can only aspire to being a fun thing to play with for ten minutes after The Christmas Invasion airs. Because anyone familiar enough with Doctor Who to win the final decision as something other than a coin toss is going to also recognize this as sub-par. And this gets at what we might call the more interesting point here. One of the quotes I’ve trotted out several times, because I think it’s terribly revealing, is Russell T Davies’s comment that the idea of a child viewer realizing Rose can’t really be dead in Bad Wolf isn’t cynical, it’s wise. What’s so revealing about this quote, to me, isn’t just the valorization of a trope-aware television viewing, it’s a rejection of immersion-based storytelling. That is, it’s not just praising a viewer who realizes that the series isn’t going to kill off Rose, it tacitly criticizes as unwise any viewer who watches the series in such a blindly credulous way.

This is important, because it absolutely decimates an entire model of watching Doctor Who. And, unfortunately, it’s the one that’s at the heart of Attack of the Graske. That is, of course, the model of uncritical fantasy - of wishing the Doctor would come to take you away. There certainly is an age bracket that reads television as if it’s real, but this has always been a model I’ve been skeptical of at best, and the new series just completely fails to support it. But this raises a question - how is this not cynical? Isn’t rejecting the innocence of childhood fantasy the very definition of cynicism?

Well, no. I mean, for one thing, this isn’t rejecting childhood fantasy at all. What it is rejecting is the passivity of childhood fantasy. If there is something to be frustrated about with Attack of the Graske it’s the passivity it demands. The viewer is ultimately asked to sit and wait for the Doctor’s return. The only authorized way to interact with the Doctor is via the TV remote - in other words, the audience’s engagement with Doctor Who becomes coextensive with watching Doctor Who. If this is some idyllic thing to cherish and protect then frankly, long live cynicism.

But lets consider another model - one in which childhood fantasy isn’t based on uncritical immersion, but on, oh, let’s go ahead and be Aristotelean here, imitation. And specifically, an intelligent imitation that recognizes how story structure and creation work. Why would we valorize the quasi-reality of Doctor Who when it can find just as much power - indeed, even more power - in its fictionality. Because if Doctor Who is treated as real then it’s a system in which only the authorized companion ever gets to have adventures. But if it’s fictional then all one has to do is recognize the material conditions under which it’s made. If it’s fictional than we get to recognize that the difference between David Tennant playing the Doctor and us pretending to be the Doctor is the paycheck. We get to recognize that the Doctor Who stories we imagine have just as much validity as the ones we watch.

And this really is important, because it is, in point of fact, how Doctor Who gets made. Matt Smith famously developed his use of the sonic screwdriver by taking the prop and playing with it in a manner not particularly dissimilar to what any kid unwrapping their own sonic on Christmas morning does. Writing a Doctor Who story really is just a matter of opening a notebook and starting. This is how creative work actually takes place: people do stuff. By understanding Doctor Who as something that is created and constructed, and that follows certain narrative rules we do not lose our ability to become immersed in Doctor Who. We gain it. We actually learn how to make Doctor Who. Even on a more basic level, the realization that you can have a Dalek story with nothing more than a trash can, a whisk, and a plunger is tremendously empowering. Doctor Who’s true immersive potential comes when it gets out of the box, not when we get in. As we’ve seen, that’s the real way “bigger on the inside” works.

This is not, to be clear, an argument against video games, which can readily be understood as being just as constructed and created as anything else. It is, however, an argument against the immersive fantasy of video games. At their best video games are thoroughly conducive to learning to treat stories this way, since they are in practice about learning sets of rules and systems. Video games are marvelous for this sort of thing. No, what’s frustrating and disappointing is the practice of using video games, well, like this.

Again, I really want to underline the degree to which this is not a criticism of anyone in particular with Attack of the Graske. In fact, it is in almost every regard as good as it can possibly be with the technology available. Nor do I particularly blame Davies, Roberts, et al for falling partially into the trap of immersion and “becoming the Doctor’s companion,” because it’s such a longstanding fantasy that it would be almost impossible to avoid it forever. The problem is that the rest of the time the series is so good at moving beyond the fantasy and at providing something altogether more useful. It’s hard to fault Attack of the Graske because it is such a well-meaning and frankly cuddly piece of work, but equally, it’s hard to get that enthused about something that’s so actively rejecting what’s really magical about Doctor Who in favor of “wouldn’t it be fun if you could go on a kind of naff runaround with aliens.”

If one really wanted to push the argument one could suggest that this is in practice the exact danger that being a massive hit entails for Doctor Who. It’s fun, but little else, and, worse, lacking in any desire to be anything else. It wholly and completely believes that being Doctor Who is enough to make it inherently fun and interesting, and thus that no further ambitions are required. It is, in a sense, exactly what The Christmas Invasion seems afraid of Doctor Who becoming. And perhaps it’s worthy of fear - certainly Attack of the Graske is an unsettling vision for the future of the show. But it’s not a vision of the future; it’s a fun way to spend ten minutes towards the end of Christmas Day. Here, at least, nothing more is required.

Comments

David 3 years, 11 months ago

I'm guessing you meant the infamous Dragon's Lair (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon%27s_Lair) rather than Dragon Quest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Quest)?

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

'If it can avoid being a satsuma then it’s a winner.'

Does that mean it gets 'no second chances'?

Excellent piece. It's amusing to see the Graske recycled in the 'Doctor Who at the Proms' shows and in 'The Sarah Jane Adventures'. He also turns up in the space bar where Ten matchmakes Jack and Alonso. I wonder if he's on Akhaten for the sing-song too? I'll have to check.

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Abigail Brady 3 years, 11 months ago

In our household this did not cause fun so much as frustrated wrangling of the Freeview box for half an hour or so before giving up on it as being too old to deal with whatever newfangled encoding they were doing... I suspect there was a lot of that going around.

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Bennett 3 years, 11 months ago

"For only the second time ever, December 25th, 2005 featured the debut of two separate new episodes of Doctor Who.

I was scratching my head at this trivial fact, trying to work out when the first time was (I think I've narrowed it down to Silver Nemesis Part 2 and 3 airing in New Zealand*...but how must your mind work to immediately link that to Attack of the Graske?)

*after immediately ignoring the possibility that A Fix with Sontarans could be considered as an "episode"

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Nick Smale 3 years, 11 months ago

The BBC produced a whole selection of digital tie-ins to work alongside series 1 and 2. Clive (from Rose) had a conspiracy website, for instance (which after his death on the show was taken over by Mickey Smith), and there were corporate sites for UNIT, Van Statten and Cybus Industries.

Despite the fact that it was shown on TV rather than online (and Red Button programming is actually broadcast, just on an obscure high numbered channel that's hard to find unaided) I've always thought of Attack of the Graske as being akin to these, a digital extension of Doctor Who rather than a canonical episode.

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Ross 3 years, 11 months ago

There certainly is an age bracket that reads television as if it’s real, but this has always been a model I’ve been skeptical of at best, and the new series just completely fails to support it. But this raises a question - how is this not cynical? Isn’t rejecting the innocence of childhood fantasy the very definition of cynicism?

I reject your reality, and substitute my own.

It's not cynical to dismiss the "innocence of childhood fantasy" because the idea that children of a certain age "think TV is real" is itself a myth. Children of no age actually believe that -- people who don't believe it look back at their childhood memories from the perspective of someone with an adult experience of the distinction between TV and reality and mischaracterize the remembered experience as "thinking TV is real". Children in that age group don't experience TV as real because they don't experience reality as real. That is, when you're a child, you don't think in terms of "There is one thing that is reality which is Really Truly Real and Primary, and everything else is Not Really Truly Real, and therefore secondary" -- you experience the world as having many different kinds of discontinuous experience, without any reason to privilege one mode as "real" over the others as "unreal". You don't think that dreams and waking-life are "the same thing", but you don't yet have any reason to think that dream-life is any less valid than waking-life -- how could you? Your very experience of what it's like to have a waking life itself changes from day to day: today, all of a sudden and for no reason, it suddenly makes intuitive sense to you why the Little Box fits inside the Big Box but not the other way 'round -- you only have to look at them to see this is patently and obviously true, but yesterday it was witchcraft.

As a parent of a small child, one thing that I keep thinking about is this: as an adult -- an especially large adult at that -- I can't even remember the last time I woke up in a different place from where I fell asleep. And if I did, it would be weird and disconcerting and frightening. But my son pretty much never wakes up in the same place as he fell asleep, and he's entirely cool with it. Because he doesn't expect his experience of life to be continuous in that way.

I don't really have a larger point in this, just something I wanted to digress about a bit.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

@Ross. - I love the imagery of waking in a different place as an adult.
Have you ever tried to demonstrate a piece of close-up magic ( a card trick or a coin vanish) to a very small child? They are invariably unimpressed because to them things appear and disappear all the time timeand they haven't worked out yet when this should be seen as remarkable. However, just from personal experience, I cannot remember a time when as a child I didn't know that narratives from various media weren't real. Television was a form of entertainment and education and often used as a surrogate babysitter but at no time do I recall accepting the goings on in the little box or on the cinema screen as anything but unreal. It was not a case of prioritising 'primary' and 'secondary' experiences just being able to tell one from the other. Reality was something I participated in and could affect through action (eating, playing etc.) while TV was a passive experience. I guess this is what Doctor Sandifer was gesturing toward in his post, how the interactive 'red button' content presented an interface between passive consumption and real activity.
The concept of a golden age of childhood innocence is of course a construct of the Edwardian age, producing literary delights such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the works of E. Nesbit and later Enid Blyton.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 11 months ago

Ooo this thread has gone off in an interesting direction! I also am the parent of two (no longer small) children and have found it an insight into the way young children (and by extension me, 40 years ago) see the world. They do know that TV is TV and Real Life is Real Life, but I'd agree that one is no more "unreal" than the other. At the age of 5 or 6 I lived in London with a real Police Box nearby. I also watched Doctor Who. Now I was aware that this was a Police Box, and that was the TARDIS, and I knew that the Police used this one, and the Doctor used that one. But if I'd walked past the box and either seen it dematerialise, or seen the Doctor walk out of it, I would have been incredibly excited, but not unbelieving.

Children will close their eyes and wish for things to change around them, especially when they've done wrong and want to make things "didn't happen", and they truly believe that if they wish hard enough it will come true. They would certainly be pleased and unsurprised if it worked.

I think this is in part down to them being too young for experience to have taught them what does and doesn't work in the world. At their age, all bets are still on. And let's face it, even in adulthood there's still a little bit of it hanging on. Who doesn't understand the concept of "lucky" items of clothing?

Far from being a "passive" experience, I see TV as an essential part of every child's learning, as it is quite simply story-telling, and that's how we as humans learn our most important lessons - the rules of human relationships. Which of course is at the heart of why human societies behave differently on other parts of the planet and at other times in history - because the stories were and are different. 1960s stories taught us that The Celestial Toymaker was an OK story and that it was fine for the Doctor's companions to fall over and screeam, while 1970s stories taught us that The Talons of Weng Chiang was acceptable TV and that there was nothing wrong with objectifying Leela.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 11 months ago

I'd forgotten some of these!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_tie-in_websites

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

it absolutely decimates an entire model of watching Doctor Who

It reduces it by one tenth?

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 11 months ago

One Tennanth, if you will.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

The concept of a golden age of childhood innocence is of course a construct of the Edwardian age, producing literary delights such as ... Peter Pan

Maybe if you're talking about the Disney version. The original book's portrayal of childhood is rather dark and not very innocent. There's this passage, for example:

"But of course he cared very much; and he was so full of wrath against grown-ups, who, as usual, were spoiling everything, that as soon as he got inside his tree he breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second. He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Who doesn't understand the concept of "lucky" items of clothing?

Indeed, I'm wearing my lucky space helmet right now. I haven't taken it off for the last six months. My hair really needs washing, but I don't dare take off my helmet to wash it.

Too much information?

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 11 months ago

Beat me to it!

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Spacewarp 3 years, 11 months ago

Can't be as disgusting as my lucky pants! (and that's English pants, not American ones! eeewww!!)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

That sounds pretty pants.

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Froborr 3 years, 11 months ago

A Doctor Who Alternate Reality Game could be interesting...

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 11 months ago

Thanks for clearing up what the Red Button actually is...as an American, from what I read it always sounded like it was something online. (I also used to love DVD games when I was little - you know, when DVDs were a new and cool thing with *special features*!)

Attack of the Graske sounds more like a Decide Your Destiny book/game than a "be in Doctor Who!" thing.

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Froborr 3 years, 11 months ago

That's a very abridged dictionary you're using, it apparently only has the first definition of each word.

Decimate, definition 3b: "To cause great destruction or harm to."

(That's Merriam-Webster Online. I don't have a subscription to the OED, or I'd use that.)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

Yep. Fixed.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 11 months ago

No, they're not very pretty pants. Not now anyway...

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 11 months ago

What it is rejecting is the passivity of childhood fantasy. If there is something to be frustrated about with Attack of the Graske it’s the passivity it demands. The viewer is ultimately asked to sit and wait for the Doctor’s return.

Never thought I'd get deeper appreciation for Amy Pond after reading a take on Attack of the Graske!

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Dictionaries do not settle what usage is best; they're just part of an ongoing negotiation.

We have many words that mean destroy or devastate. We have only one word that means "reduce by one tenth." It would be foolish to surrender or squander it. Plus, using "decimate" to mean destroy creates giggle-worthy images in the minds of people who know the traditional meaning, so it's rhetorically ill-advised.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 11 months ago

The usage that is best for puns is the preferred usage in my friend group.

Or maybe that's just me.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

@BerserkRL -
No I'm not talking about the Disney version of anything. Nor was I using the term 'literary delights' ironically. Peter Pan is an interesting text which actually began life as a live theatre performance and therefore does not have a definitive text. I agree though that it doesn't present in any of its forms anything like an idyllic picture of childhood; as the 'rather dark and not very innocent' excerpt you quote aptly demonstrates. However, that was not my point. I was referring to the Edwardian trope (actually starting in the mid-Victorian era) of constructing a glamourised version of childhood, full of sickly baby talk and anodine nursery rhymes, sailor suits and peasant dresses, which literary constructs such as 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan' actually worked hard to subvert. Like Barrie, Charles [Lewis Carrol] Dodgson was (perhaps unknowingly, your mileage may vary) creating a dark satire on society and a pre -Freudian commentary on what would later be called child psychology. The passage from Peter Pan that you chose, particularly the line

"...He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible."

illustrates quite viscerally the phenomenon Spacewarp mentions that -

'Children will close their eyes and wish for things to change around them, especially when they've done wrong and want to make things "didn't happen", and they truly believe that if they wish hard enough it will come true. They would certainly be pleased and unsurprised if it worked".

Moffat is the man to explore dark childhoods in Nu-Who with little Amelia Pond (I think everyone got the Peter and Wendy reference of Amy's nightdress), the boy in the Gas Mask, the girl in the fireplace, and others wishing or praying for a change in their reality and getting...The Doctor.

@Spacewarp -
I still feel, compared with physical play, computer games and actual interaction with reality, that TV viewing is essentially a passive experience even when it is having an educational effect.

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storiteller 3 years, 11 months ago

I agree that children have some understanding of "stories as stories" and "reality as reality," even if "reality" itself isn't terribly concrete. In general, they understand television as essentially being the same type of thing as a storybook. What I think sometimes really trips kids up is commercials. Not because they have trouble distinguishing between stories and reality, but because commercials promise reality. It's a fundamentally different set of expectations being set. When I was very little, I got a doll that was supposed to talk to you. When I found out it only said a few stock phases, I got so annoyed that I threw it across the room and never played with it again. It promised that the doll could talk to you - how was I to know that it wasn't capable of conversation?

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Daibhid C 3 years, 11 months ago

ISTR I played it twice, once with my neice (then aged 5) and once on my own. And I liked it, possibly more than she did. And I think it's fair to say that, at the age of 29, I understood how the red button worked and that it wasn't sonic screwdriver magic.

I know Phil hates the phrase "suspension of disbelief", but I can't think of another one. I was able to recognise how cool the *idea* that I was assisting the Doctor via my remote control was, and was able to translate that into the coolness of what I was doing, even though I knew that wasn't really what I was doing at all. (I liked the Doctor Who Choose Your Own Adventures books as well, even though I freely admit they were objectively dreadful.)

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Wm Keith 3 years, 11 months ago

So that's Froborr's argument literally decimated. Next, how Terry Nation's Daleks exterminated the postwar resonance of their catchphrase.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

I think my problem with "suspension of disbelief" is that it's a negative experience instead of a positive one. I much prefer "thought experiment" or "imagination," where something is created instead of anesthetized.

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David Anderson 3 years, 11 months ago

I have a problem with using both Blyton and Nesbit in any sentence that attempts to make a general point. (Unless that point is that some children's books are better than others.)

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Froborr 3 years, 11 months ago

Words have multiple definitions. Using a word as one definition does not "surrender or squander" the other definitions.

I know the etymological meaning of "decimate," yet I am fully capable of recognizing that, given the context in which Philip is using the word, the colloquial meaning is intended, and as such don't get any giggle-worthy images out of it.

Honestly, what purpose does this sort of pedantry serve? Are you going to insist that we only use "happy" to mean "fortunate" next?

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Spacewarp 3 years, 11 months ago

@Anton B.
"I still feel, compared with physical play, computer games and actual interaction with reality, that TV viewing is essentially a passive experience even when it is having an educational effect."

Wouldn't you agree that TV is no more a passive experience than a child having a story read to it? Except perhaps that the story invites the child to imagine, while the TV programme doesn't.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

@David Anderson.

I agree. I was foolishly, in an effort to not waffle too much, trying to conflate the history of children's literature into one sentence. Some children's books are definitely 'better' than others. Although any specific value judgments would be subjective. I was suggesting that the whole idea of children's literature as a 'thing' stems from an Edwardian construct of 'childhood' itself. A distinction which we still, to a certain degree maintain.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

'Alice Through the Looking Glass' Lewis Carroll

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

@Spacewarp -

Yes, I guess we're talking about levels of passivity then. I can see where watching a TV programme involves a certain amount of creative thought but not as much as say, painting a picture or creating a Lego construct.

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Ross 3 years, 11 months ago

Leaving aside for the moment how old the sentence "I also used to love DVD games when I was little" makes me feel (I used to love DVD games too... When DVDs were a new and cool thing and I was in college.), if you're a fan of DVD games, perhaps you can appreciate this: https://twitter.com/DAScottJr/status/341026900560457728/photo/1

(For the uninitiated, check out this (possibly nsfw) DVD Game review on my blog: http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com/2010/07/if_its_not_one_thing_its_your_.html )

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Using a word as one definition does not "surrender or squander" the other definitions.

Well, in practice, yes it does. That's how the older meanings get eroded.

Honestly, what purpose does this sort of pedantry serve?

Preventing words from losing their beautiful usefulness.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”

At the risk of being, well, pedantic -- the line is actually "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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David Anderson 3 years, 11 months ago

I'd have said that the construction of childhood predates the canon of children's literature. Dickens clearly has a concept of childhood, and he talks a lot about children's reading, but his children's reading is a selection from the adult canon: Robinson Crusoe, the Arabian Nights, and so on.
What I think I'd want to say is that generalisations about children's literature of any period are by the nature of the case less likely to apply to the stand-outs; and of the stand-outs less likely to apply to books like Nesbitt or Carroll than to those like Blyton. Not just true of children's literature obviously.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Well, in practice, yes it does.

To clarify: I don't mean that whenever a word with two meanings is used with one meaning, it erodes the other meaning. But in a case like the present, where the new meaning is coming into wider and wider use because most people are unaware of the old meaning and are simply misled by the similarity in sound between "decimate" and "devastate," it seems clear that the original use is in serious danger of being crowded out by the old. When the old use serves a unique and specific purpose while the new use flattens out interesting distinctions into a general mush, as seems to me to be the case here, then the old sue is worth fighting for, and the new use is worth combating as one would combat termites in a beautiful and useful wooden structure.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

By "serious danger of being crowded out by the old" I mean "serious danger of being crowded out by the new."

By "the old sue is worth fighting for" I mean "the old use is worth fighting for."

By "Mary Sue" I mean "merry use."

That is all.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Anton,

I'm not sure how to reconcile this sentence --

Some children's books are definitely 'better' than others.

-- with the one that immediately follows:

Although any specific value judgments would be subjective.

(To be clear, my sympathies are with the first sentence, not the second.)

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

By “whether you can make words mean different things.”

I meant

"whether you can make words mean so many different things."

I copied and pasted directly from my Kindle so that'll serve me right for going for the cheap edition.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

My subjective opinion is that some children's books are better than others. Which ones, specifically, *I* think qualify as better or worse may differ from yours.

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Ross 3 years, 11 months ago

Plus, using "decimate" to mean destroy creates giggle-worthy images in the minds of people who know the traditional meaning, so it's rhetorically ill-advised.

You know that if you "decimate" the US population, that's killing every single person in California, right? That no war ever has decimated the combattants? That anything which kills 1/10 of a population is indeed a disaster, right?

Because people who "know the traditional meaning" really shouldn't get "giggleworthy" images. "Decimate" has always described a slaughter of horrific proportions. It's just that the pedants are so cynical and jaded as to imagine that 10% doesn't qualify as a horrific proportion

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Wm Keith 3 years, 11 months ago

A child to whom a story is being read has the ability to interfere with the telling; to ask questions; to provoke changes in the narrative; simply, perhaps to turn two pages at once. A child watching TV can only turn over the channel or go to sleep.

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Wm Keith 3 years, 11 months ago

Perhaps we could do with a new word onto which we could transfer the "kill one in ten member of a military unit pour encourager les autres" meaning of decimate. Those pedants amongst us who currently find grim humour in any other use of decimate could then freely use decimate to mean an unquantified amount of death, doom and disaster.

I suggest "decibyng". Indeed, the word could be a noun as well as a verb, a precise unit of slaughter and destruction. "In the aftermath of invasion, the population has fallen by between two and three decibyng."

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 11 months ago

Without pedantry huge swaths of the Internet would go silent. Which is a double edged sword. I mean it's good for people who use language casually and have no patience for this sort of thing. On the other hand for large groups of people it makes the world a much less interesting place. I mean if we're going to stop people from going way into depth on trivial things...where does it all end?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

I mean if we're going to stop people from going way into depth on trivial things...

Most of us would have to abolish our websites.

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ferret 3 years, 11 months ago

I always refer to my Master Dictionary:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zY19AqRsx_o

Honestly, call yourselves Doctor Who fans?
(I kid, I kid)

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

Wm Keith -
Yes that's exactly right. I suppose on a simple level the development of recorded TV (On tape and then DVD) and 'red button' technology gave the ability to replicate 'turning two pages at once' and is what inspires attempts such as 'Attack of the Graske' to provide TV which may give the illusion of choice and creativity. I think that 'illusion' was what Phillip found interesting in his post.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

@David Anderson
'I'd have said that the construction of childhood predates the canon of children's literature. Dickens clearly has a concept of childhood, and he talks a lot about children's reading, but his children's reading is a selection from the adult canon: Robinson Crusoe, the Arabian Nights, and so on.'

Yes, that reinforces my point. I didn't say there was no such thing as 'childhood' in the pre Victorian era and Dickens does indeed address it regularly not least in his semi-autobiographical works. I was referring to that specific 'twee' version of idyllic pastoral childhood which was pure invention and reinforced over the years by various works of fiction aimed at children.
I perhaps should have been clearer in stating which books I considered good and bad but that, as I say, can only be my own subjective view. To clarify - I personally find the Alice books and the various iterations of Peter Pan to be works of genius which explore ways in which the varied experiences and interestingly skewed perceptions of childhood may be mapped. I would give honourable mention to 'The Treasure Seekers' and 'The Phoenix and the Carpet' 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Little Prince' and be very suspicious of anything by Blyton.
I think 'Doctor Who', in its early days as a primarily children's TV show, took a similar tack to Barrie and Carroll. Presenting disturbing and dark visions from within the psyche of childhood. I am really interested in that respect to read Phillip's take on Calfer's 'A Big Hand for the Doctor' which seems to me to take a very facile version of Peter Pan and attempt to conflate it with a very odd version of the first Doctor to not very great success.

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BatmanAoD 3 years, 11 months ago

Philip, have you read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories"? Your skepticism of uncritical fantasy as a standard model for how children typically view stories just SCREAMS Tolkien, and if you haven't yet you really ought to take an hour or two and read the thing. It's brilliant.

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Froborr 3 years, 11 months ago

It really is, and together with the companion short story "Leaf by Niggle" is quite possibly my favorite thing Tolkien ever wrote. (His first piece in the Legendarium, the original version of "The Fall of Gondolin," is a close second, for the twin bizarreries of being written in the margins of a manual he was issued at the Somme, and the orcs riding to the battle *inside* dragons.)

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Froborr 3 years, 11 months ago

That said, while a brilliant essay in its own right, the aesthetic it advances is one Phil has rightly criticized, since it tries to pretend that the work isn't artificial and that it describes a "secondary reality." It's not that different from that "suspension of disbelief" nonsense, alas.

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George Potter 3 years, 11 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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George Potter 3 years, 11 months ago

What about 'willing suspension of disbelief' which was the actual formulation:

"...yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

Colerige actually used it to explain why poems about witches n' shit could still work for a contemporary audience, grown jaded by the modernity of 1817.

Sounds fairly positive to me. It speaks to willful use of imagination rather than chloroform. :)

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David Anderson 3 years, 11 months ago

I suppose all I'm trying to say is that the idyllic twee version of childhood is inevitably going to be a feature of bad books. Well, I'm hesitant to describe something that's lasted as long as Blyton as 'bad' unqualified, since clearly some people are gettting something out of it.

Alice is I think really a Swiftian satire written at a time when people thought a Bowdlerised version of Gulliver's Travels was suitable for children.

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BatmanAoD 3 years, 11 months ago

It's been a while since I've read it, and I really ought to re-read it, but I don't really see "secondary reality" as synonymous with "suspension of disbelief." Do we really believe that Bilbo Baggins breathed the same air and walked on the same ground that we do today? Of course not. But do we believe that he feels the weight of myth and history on his shoulders just as heavily as we do? Absolutely.

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BatmanAoD 3 years, 11 months ago

....that was a lot of "really"'s.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

'But do we believe that he feels the weight of myth and history on his shoulders just as heavily as we do? Absolutely.'

Absolutely not. He's not real. He doesn't feel anything except what the author describes. That is the reason for suspension of disbelief.

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BatmanAoD 3 years, 11 months ago

I can't quite determine whether you're missing my point or if we actually disagree. Personally, when reading Tolkien, I don't feel any need whatsoever for any cognitive action that could reasonably be described as "suspending disbelief," but you may feel differently.

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BatmanAoD 3 years, 11 months ago

BerserkRL, I completely agree. It's not mere pedantic prescriptivism that motivates the effort to preserve those useful and interesting qualities of the language that are being lost through disuse and misuse.

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