Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 39 (Prime Suspect, Cracker)

(58 comments)

Prime Suspect, debuting in 1991, and Cracker, debuting in 1993, are two of the most iconic British television series of their eras. For the most part it is easier to list their similarities than their differences. Both are exceedingly dark detective series featuring psychologically and emotionally troubled police detectives. Both are award-winning and breakout roles for their lead actors (Helen Mirren and Robbie Coltrane respectively). And both are very, very good.

There are differences, to be sure. Prime Suspect goes for a structure of a single case per season (save one experiment in its fourth season with doing three cases over three episodes), while Cracker goes for a three-story arc over a longer season. Prime Suspect had more US success, getting aired on PBS and picking up Emmy awards, while Cracker got an unsatisfying US remake and less attention over here. (Prime Suspect eventually got its own mediocre American remake as well) More broadly, Prime Suspect is a straight-up police procedural, whereas Cracker focuses on a police psychologist and on that specific aspect of its cases. Prime Suspect thus has a bit more socially realist grit, where Cracker is a bit more over the top.

But for the most part these are two very good series to tackle an issue left hanging from last entry and heavily relevant to next issue, that of the antihero and its prevalence in the 1990s. My momentary focus on the blog, no doubt to soon be quickly replaced by some other fascination, is on the texture of the 1990s and on what Doctor Who should be at this moment in time. Not, for the moment, what it should do to come back to television, but the basic question of what it should be in 1993, given that it has no clear route to a television return and is, at this moment in time, bedding down for a long-term spell as a book series.

Much of this translates into a question of “what were the 1990s.” Which is a surprisingly tricky question. Maybe this is just because I actually remember large swaths of them, unlike the 1980s, where my memories are relatively fragmented, or any previous decade, which I know only through history. But the other post-War decades all have a relatively clear iconography. This iconography is absurdly reductive and heritage themepark, yes, but it’s at least there. Say “the 1970s” and you’re suddenly transplanted to disco, bell bottoms, and the mysterious fascination with the color orange. Say “the 1980s” and you have primitive obsession with the electronic and bad hair. Heck, do a Google image search on “I love the n0s” where n is between 6 and 9. For the 70s and 80s, of course, you’ll get the logos for the delightfully awful VH1 series of those names (VH1 - purveyors of the finest terrible television to watch at 3am on American cable). For the 60s, which VH1 never covered, you’ll still get homebrew logos that are instantly recognizable as “the 1960s,” albeit the scarequoted version of that more than the actual one.

But “I love the 90s?” You’ll get the VH1 logos, sure, but there’s nothing like the instant dating of the aesthetic. Google “80s night” for about 350,000 hits. Try “90s night” and you’ll get 75k. The 1990s, unlike the three, and really four decades immediately prior, simply don’t register as a coherent system of nostalgia. The number of consensus touchstones is minimal. Musically you’ve got little more than the wave of alternative rock at the start of the decade. In film and television you’ve got a few more. But there’s no iconic and easy to encapsulate image of the 1990s.

Much of this comes down to the fact that the 1990s were a relatively strange mixture of prosperity and disillusionment. There were relatively few huge political, economic, or military crises in the US and UK. Everything seemed pretty OK as such things go. The economy had a bit of a wibble early on, but was mostly solid for the rest of the decade. But despite this the popular culture was terribly dark. The alternative “grunge” movement at least coincided with the recession in the early part of the decade, but on the whole the popular culture of the era was unusually bleak for a time when things were, on the whole, pretty good for most people.

Nowhere is this more visible than the prevalence of the antihero. You couldn’t move in the 1990s without hitting narratives stocked with antiheroes. In comics you had the explosion of Image Comics and their gun/skull/spike-laden superheroes. On television you had the launch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which actively tried to take a somewhat grimmer and darker approach to Star Trek (albeit still within the broadly optimistic flavor of Star Trek). The early 90s were the period where Sega began putting a serious dent into Nintendo’s dominance of the video game market in part by marketing Sonic the Hedgehog as a cooler “punk” alternative to the staid Mario. Everyone was going with grimmer, nastier heroes.

And Prime Suspect and Cracker are notable because they’re very good executions of this paradigm. I mean, I could have done Spawn and Sonic the Hedgehog for this entry and amused myself, but that’s cheap. Prime Suspect and Cracker are extremely serious and extremely good shows, and show what the antihero concept can be like when competently executed.

The first thing to note about the two shows is that they are extremely actor-driven. Both work in part because they have absolutely phenomenal actors who are doing career-defining work in them. Without actors of the caliber of Coltrane and Mirren both series would simply fall apart. Part of this comes down to some of the long-standing differences in approach between British and American drama. We talked a bit about this way back in the I Claudius/Space: 1999 entry, British acting is focused much more on using the character’s traits to communicate information to the audience as opposed to a notion of “authenticity.” And this affects the way that dramas are written and watched. There’s a tendency in British drama to reveal huge amounts of information through action instead of dialogue in a way that’s just not done as often in American drama. And this, somewhat notoriously, makes British drama hard to watch for American audiences because there often aren’t a lot of events in the plot in order to leave room for long scenes in which a character reveals themselves through actions.

Both Coltrane and Mirren are left to do exactly this for long stretches of their respective shows. It’s worth comparing to a modern day show like House, which also deals with a brilliant antihero protagonist, but that relies on scene after scene of other people talking about what House is like in order to communicate about him because god forbid we actually learn about the character just through watching Hugh Laurie’s acting. Whereas Prime Suspect and Cracker are just as much about how flawed and broken their protagonists are, but spend relatively little time on people talking about how flawed and broken the protagonists are. Cracker is a bit more blatant, but that’s largely down to the sort of flaws in the character: Fitz, Coltrane’s character, is loud and bombastic. But Prime Suspect gives Jane Tennison mostly private, internal flaws, most notably an alcohol problem in the later seasons, leaving Mirren to do a lot of the storytelling work through her character choices.

But even aside from this tendency in British drama the antihero requires a strong actor simply because the antihero is, by its nature, a very dense role. What I mean by this is simply that the antihero is typically a character who simply has more traits that need to be revealed to the audience. Writing one requires not only a full set of heroic signifiers and traits, but a whole second level of flaws and foibles. And when this is expected to be executed in a dramatic medium it needs a good actor.

More to the point, it needs a different sort of good actor than a straightforward hero. In Doctor Who terms, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker are better straightforward heroic actors than, say, Patrick Troughton. But they’d be disastrous in the antiheroic role. And although he’s not directly involved in making Doctor Who as of 1993, Sylvester McCoy’s tenure on television did pave the way for this as he worked to find ways to combine his deep-lying skills at being an entertainer (skills that are immediately apparent if you ever see him at a con) with the more dramatic and mysterious aspects of the character that he and the writers were developing. That basic split introduced in McCoy laid the foundation to make the New Adventures version of the Seventh Doctor into more of an antihero.

The other thing that’s very apparent looking at Prime Suspect and Cracker is that the move to an antihero-based form of storytelling requires a different sort of subject matter. Both Prime Suspect and Cracker spend a tremendous amount of time focusing on how psychologically harrowing the crimes themselves are. The idea being that dealing with things as dark as Tennison and Fitz have to deal with makes you into a broken and scarred person. Again, there are obvious reflections in the New Adventures - the Doctor and Ace aren’t the only things darker about the novels than the television series. The villains and worlds they land in are darker and more horrific as well.

This too relates, I would argue, to the nature of the 1990s, and in ways I already talked a bit about on Monday. At least part of it stems from the idea of a world built to handle a long-term conflict in which, suddenly, there was no conflict. One of the major images of post-Cold War action-adventure material is the image of the now-unnecessary weapon that is still active. The most basic of these is the nuclear weapon (the perpetual fear of decommissioned Russian missiles ending up in the wrong hands), but there’s also a very common one of the spy without a war. This starts to tie in to the previously mentioned fascination in conspiracy theories of the time, but there’s more to it.

The end of the Cold War was a deferred apocalypse. The outcome “and then one side basically imploded suddenly” was not on the menu. The Cold War was supposed to end in a nuclear inferno that killed everyone. It wasn’t supposed to just have the air go out of it. And a deferred eschaton has unusual power. Culturally, we spent decades expecting that we were all going to die. The reprieve didn’t suddenly make everybody less pessimistic. It just turned that pessimism inward.

And so began a big wave of deconstructing (used in its least rigorous sense) our heroes. So the heroes of the Cold War become useful monsters whose use has run out. Police detectives become people who have gazed into the abyss for too long. Evil becomes the cruel underbelly of ourselves - a gnawing and persistent nastiness lurking about the margins of who we are. We spent the 90s afraid of the unmentionable thing in the darkness, and our heroes were the people twisted enough to go into that darkness. And faced with heroes like that, our fascination became less “how will they save the day” and more “what sorts of people are they?”

Prime Suspect and Cracker were big, acclaimed, high profile versions of this - looks at the world that suggest that it’s irredeemably and horrifically broken and scary. This is what highbrow British television was doing in 1993. It’s what crappy American superhero comics were doing in 1993. And so, unsurprisingly, it’s also what Doctor Who was doing in 1993. But equally, Doctor Who has never  simply followed the trends around it. It’s always put its own odd spins on it. Doctor Who degenerating into generic grim antiheroes facing terrible things would be insufferable. Thus far the turn has been muted - the Doctor’s antiheroic shift has mostly been used for the purpose of shedding interesting new lights on the nature of the character and the series’ legacy, and Ace’s antiheroic shift is only one very mediocre book old. But now that it’s clear that this is the status quo for the New Adventures it’s increasingly and imminently necessary to show that there’s something Doctor Who can do with antiheroes that is unique to it. Which brings us to Friday.

Comments

Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

You've touched on something that I've noticed for some time now - the difficulty in defining "the 90s". Sure I've got friends who claim to have no difficulty in giving the decade an identity..except it turns out that they were all born in the mid-70s, so they actually define the decade in very personal terms of their own experiences of growing up there. Try to get an objective "flavour" for the decade and you fail. Pushing back in time you find easy identifiers for earlier decades - the 50s were Rock & Roll, while the 40s were just WWII. However beyond that things get a little fuzzy. The 20s and 30s tend to blur into each-other, with probably the only helpful dividing lines being "flappers" and "silent films". The first two decades of the 20th Century really have no solid identity other than "Edwardian" and "First World War", and the former of those kind of blends seamlessly into the whole of the 19th Century "Victorian era".

I wonder what people living in the 1930s thought of the 1900's? Was that decade as ill-defined as the 1990s are to us? Perhaps decades having a distinct identity are the exception rather than the rule, a combination of defining events served up by the increasing influence of "the Media"? After all, who is it that really tells us that the 70s were all about Glam and Flares? The Media. The 70s certainly weren't about Glam prior to 1973, so what were they then? Probably still an extension of your "Long 60s". It certainly looks like the first decade of the 21st Century seems to have no more of an identity than the last one of the 19th, so perhaps that's the way things will be from now on?

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C. 5 years, 2 months ago

Even at the time, the 1990s felt very undefined, its only identity being "we're not the 80s, at least"--living through those years felt like you were stuck in a "20th Century greatest hits" mix, with bits and pieces of a half-remembered pop cultural past churning up again (remember the swing dancing fad, ca. 1996?). In a way, it made sense--it was the first Internet decade, and there was a feeling that simply too much had happened in the past 50 years and that everyone needed to take a break & sift through all the detritus. But as spacewarp said, this just proved to be the new normal--the 2000s were just as vaguely defined.

I don't know if you'll touch on this, but the Yugoslav Civil War was a depressing backdrop of the decade. The Cold War ends without a nuclear holocaust, and the first thing that seemingly happens afterward is that an apparently normal (to the Western eye) European country descends into medieval barbarism.

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jane 5 years, 2 months ago

And wasn't a lot of the 90's focused on the upcoming turn of the century? With a rather apocalyptic mindset, if I recall. Maybe that's more late 90's than early 90's, let alone the 90's as a whole. Antiheroes and apocalypse go really well together, I think.

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sleepyscholar 5 years, 2 months ago

The 20s were "flappers" all right, but surely the 30s were "depression"?

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

It's true that we didn't get the apocalypse that we expected at the end of the 80s, and to a certain extent that some of us wanted (if only to be able paradoxically to say "I told you so"). Almost all BBC comedy from the Young Ones onwards seems to look a bit sheepish now that the Cold War actually ended so lack-lustrely. Those "Frankie Say..." T-shirts also look a bit lame now.

Maybe that's the problem - from 1989 onwards we really didn't have anything to either look forward to, or fear; and I think as humans we need one or another to define us. OK we had a couple of Wars in the Gulf, but they were never the delicious threat to the planet that the Hydrogen Bomb was. Even 9/11, apocalyptic though it seemed on the day, ended up as part of the War on Terror...which again wasn't an apocalyptic war, but more a Vietnam for the new Millennium. Although the situation in Iran looks promising for a new Cold War for the 21st Century...

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Picklepuss 5 years, 2 months ago

When someone says "the 1990s" I instantly think of flannel shirts and grunge. Surely that's as iconic for the decade as disco and flares were for the 1970s?

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

It would be, if everyone you asked thought the same. But they don't. In fact although I know of grunge (I am aware of Nirvana and Pearl Jam) I have no idea what you mean by flannel shirts. Whereas anyone between the ages of 20 and 90 knows exactly what decade disco and flares are from.

I'm 50 by the way.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 2 months ago

One of my students is obsessed with the 80s and keeps saying, "I wish I'd lived in the 80s." Finally I told him "the 80s were just like today, only with a Cold War and no internet."

On television you had the launch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which actively tried to take a somewhat grimmer and darker approach to Star Trek

And of course Babylon 5.

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

When people portray the 80s now, it no longer looks like I remember (and I remember it very well, it was my most fun decade).

I'd love to visit the 60s, but I know it wouldn't look like I think , because my idea of the 60s is based on films like "Alfie", "Up The Junction" and "If", and of course the 60s wasn't actually grainy and monochrome, any more than the 20s was.

The 60s was just like today, only with no Pill.

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Picklepuss 5 years, 2 months ago

And I'm 47. Pleased to meet you.

You may be right about everyone knowing what decade disco and flares are from, but as you said not everyone thinks the same. I know that if someone mentions the 1970s to me my first thoughts are of arena rock and muscle cars, which probably tells you a fair bit about my parents.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

The grunge/flannel look is the closest thing the 90s have to an iconic style, but they occupied a surprisingly narrow range of the 90s. I mean, Nevermind came out in September of 1991, Kurt Cobain committed suicide two and a half years later, which is when the air went out of that style.

But this ignores the horrifying neon style of the very early 90s (immortalized in Russell T Davies's Dark Season), and the manufactured pop revival of the late 90s, and even those leave a hole in the middle of the decade.

Mind you, this is no more limiting than treating the 1970s as though they're just the space between Saturday Night Fever and Disco Demolition Night.

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Flynn 5 years, 2 months ago

It's also interesting to think that the defining superhero movies of the late 70s and most of the 80s were the hugely-optimistic traditional Superman films, while the 90s basically open with the grim and dark Tim Burton Batman films.

Of course, that disappears once the studios start wanting more money and bring a return to an Adam West style, but it's still a good example of the cultural pessimism you talk about here.

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David Anderson 5 years, 2 months ago

The last decade of the 19th would be Wilde and Beardsley and early Yeats. (But not early Hardy and Kipling and Housman although they have just as good a claim to be representative.)

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David Anderson 5 years, 2 months ago

Neither Cracker or Prime Suspect have a conventional leading man. Prime Suspect is of course all about that. But I remember a reviewer, back when Cracker was first shown, noting that it used the cliche in which the lead races to the rescue of a companion threatened by the villain. But the cliche was given renewed urgency by the fact that the lead trying to race to the rescue was played by Coltrane.

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

I never saw Cracker but I saw all the Prime Suspects, and Tennison was an incredibly complex character, bucking all the stereotypical trends. You could see a certain vulnerability about her a mile off, but if you ever tried to capitalize on that, she'd slap you down like a bitch and you'd stay down. She was admirable, despicable, petty, horrible, and if you ever crossed her God help you. But if you wanted someone to cut through the bullshit and not stop until she'd got the villain (ruining her own health in the process), there was no-one better. She made Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name look like Adam West's Batman. The Anti-Hero finally broke through the constraints of traditional fiction during the 90s, dragging Reality with them. You can see the legacy of shows like this even now, in recent TV like "Spooks" and the ill-fated "Demons", or even the mid-90s Vampire mini-series "Ultraviolet".

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 2 months ago

And I find myself thinking about Colin Baker again, and all the lost potential of his take on the character. If they had dressed him in reasonable clothes and plonked him in the middle of a Doctor Who tv show being made in 1993, he would have fit in fine with the arrogant bombast of Coltrane's Fitz. If anything, Coltrane would have made for a great guest star for a mid-1990s Colin Baker Doctor Who.

As it is, I still liked the antiheroic conception of McCoy's Doctor, which shows that there's more than one way to do an antiheroic Doctor Who. Colin's character would have been Fitz in time and space, but Sylvester's character in the NAs morphed into an antihero along much more sinister lines. That's one of the things I like most about Doctor Who: Not only can it do pretty much everything, there are always so many ways to do everything.

And wasn't Cracker partly responsible for a serious step up in Christopher Eccleston's career? I only saw the show many years later in reruns on Canadian cable channels, but it seems as though Eccleston's role on Cracker as DCI Bilborough really put him on the map. Between that and the Our Friends From the North series in 1996, Eccleston pretty much made his reputation that persists to this day.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

The biggest thing is that I'm just not convinced that Colin Baker is on the level of Robbie Coltrane. I almost had a paragraph about this in the entry, in fact, but I realized it would be one of those asides that derailed the comments into being exclusively about that point and cut it for the health of the rest of the essay. But Colin Baker, though certainly not a bad actor, is really a performer in the Tom Baker model. That's fine - it makes a great sort of leading man. But I don't think he's the sort of actor who can anchor an antiheroic performance. For all that Coltrane is at home with bombast, like Helen Mirren, the moments where he really sells Fitz are the quieter ones.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

I note that one of the things that makes the '90s so difficult to define is that it also had an aspect that was, essentially, the complete opposite of this - powered by the release of tension from the Cold War, and a feeling that, hey, maybe we actually can change things. ("Right Here, Right Now" by Jesus Jones is basically this encapsulated.)

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

The 2000s at least had Bushness to define them.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

I basically COMPLETELY missed grunge on my way through the '90s. Neon colors make up a far larger part of my personal psychochronographic landscape.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 2 months ago

I keep hoping you'll do an entry on "CAMPION". Whenever I think about that show, I keep picturing how much better Peter Davison COULD have been as The Doctor than he actually was.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

The ship has sailed on that.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

Which itself shows the depth of the problems with the JNT/Saward era.

I've been looking at a lot of Doctor Who GIFs on Tumblr, and the thing about taking a moment out of context and making it into a GIF is that, to work, it has to be a well-acted moment. And a lot of C. Baker's best moments basically involve him showing the character under the concept - showing, not an Super Gritty Antihero, but someone who's pompous, argumentative, impatient and kind of goofy, but really cares about the people around him.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 2 months ago

@BeserkRL:

And that's actually fascinating to me-The way nostalgia warps, distorts and caricatures entire swaths of history when if you actually ask people who lived through those eras they weren't all that different, especially the 1980s. There's the Heritage Park thing again.

Also, I think "DS9 as grimungritty Trek" was always more on-paper summarising then actual production fact. And Babylon 5 always seemed to me like post-Cold War confidence and United Nations glorification.

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C. 5 years, 2 months ago

this is a pretty quintessential '90s video (from '91), a pileup of: '50s/'60s fashion/visuals, '70s glam guitars, '80s heavy metal-esque singer and Detroit house piano: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdLyoCgDKFs

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AndyRobot800 5 years, 2 months ago

"But now that it’s clear that this is the status quo for the New Adventures it’s increasingly and imminently necessary to show that there’s something Doctor Who can do with antiheroes that is unique to it. Which brings us to Friday."

Lemme guess... OOH! Dimensions In Time!

No...?

Ok. The '90s - which economically, technologically, and socially have to be considered one of the high points of Western Civilization - was also marred by a dark cynicism. It's almost like Nine Inch Nails, Doom, and The X Files were the zeitgeist's way of telling us that nothing good can last forever.

Or, as Nine Inch Nails put it on their 1992 album Broken: "This isn't built to last/this is for right now."

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Jesse 5 years, 2 months ago

Some of us had the grunge look in the '80s. Then one of us flannel-wearers became a star and the fashionistas thought they'd discovered something new.

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Jesse 5 years, 2 months ago

The end of the Cold War was a deferred apocalypse. The outcome “and then one side basically imploded suddenly” was not on the menu. The Cold War was supposed to end in a nuclear inferno that killed everyone. It wasn’t supposed to just have the air go out of it. And a deferred eschaton has unusual power. Culturally, we spent decades expecting that we were all going to die. The reprieve didn’t suddenly make everybody less pessimistic. It just turned that pessimism inward.

And so began a big wave of deconstructing (used in its least rigorous sense) our heroes. So the heroes of the Cold War become useful monsters whose use has run out. Police detectives become people who have gazed into the abyss for too long. Evil becomes the cruel underbelly of ourselves - a gnawing and persistent nastiness lurking about the margins of who we are. We spent the 90s afraid of the unmentionable thing in the darkness, and our heroes were the people twisted enough to go into that darkness. And faced with heroes like that, our fascination became less “how will they save the day” and more “what sorts of people are they?”


This is a brilliant point.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 2 months ago

Exactly, which gets at the larger fact that the Alternative Rock boon of the early 90s was essentially the mainstream breakout of a group of second-generation musicians attempting to follow/reinterpret Alternative Rock from the 1980s. Seems to me that's the same way a lot of trends get started.

Also, for what it's worth, I remember a lot of flannel and grunge fashion from the mid-90s too, but I usually chalk that up to various places and forms of media being hideously late to the party.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

DS9 was less grim-n-gritty Trek and more arc-based Trek. Not that it wasn't dark, and occasionally grimdark, but that was more a reaction to the utopianism of TNG - which, we'll remember, was mostly a '90s thing itself.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 2 months ago

Agreed: Arc-based and also an attempt to do more "realistic" and "mundane" Trek. Although yes, it did slip into grimdark a *bit* more often than it perhaps needed to, especially in its last few years.

What's funny to me is that what DS9 was tacitly shooting for is more often than not what TNG was in its last few years (in no small part due to the massive creative team overlap). TNG (and by extension DS9) was much better at subverting Star Trek's Utopianism and New Frontier liberalism than many people give it credit for.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

The 90s? Britpop and the dotcom bubble; Celtic Tiger and Monica Lewinsky. Indie becomes mainstreams; geeks win and then find they have to work out and be social. The Tories' slow disintegration, a series of buffoonish sex scandals, Steven Milligan with an orange in his mouth. Yeltsin drunk for an entire decade. Building up to the fireworks in Sydney and Gary Condit. For me it was a great decade, except for the bit where I did a PhD and was miserable for four straight years.

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Matt Michael 5 years, 2 months ago

The 1990s were the decade of end of a century decadence. The short period in England when no-one was trying to kill us - even the IRA stopped in 1996. Think it was defined by hopefulness and relief that the struggles of the Cold War and the 1980s were over. I miss them.

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Archeology of the Future 5 years, 2 months ago

I was going to post something similar. Perhaps the 90s seemed different in the UK.

I tend to look at it as the decade where youth won, at least in the sense that by the time Britpop arrives, everyone decides that no one grows up any more and that pop culture is where it's at.

I think it's worth looking at the club culture-ification of popular culture in the UK. By the mid to late 90s everything from TV adverts to revision guides looked like a cross between a club projection and a club flyer. Whole strands of late night television were based on the idea that everyone in the world was mashed and still awake. Clubbing and ecstasy culture makes its way into everything from Eastenders to Grange Hill. Ecstasy went mainstream in the 90s. Lucozade moves from dink you have if you're ill in bed to energy drink for being off your tits and the marketing follows that... Alcopops fight back against bitter and lager. The club culture sexalisation / infantalisation nexus sneaks into so much of UK culture in the 90s.

There isn't the cultural mashup in the 90s of hip and geek that the web enables.

Similarly 'style' ceased to be a minor metropolitan concern and began to both sell out and eat popular culture. Everyone had always loved hop hop and everyone was born in stussy (or so they claimed). It was the time of mega-clubs. Everything in the UK started to go mega. We got into new style malls and megabowls and multiplexes. Pubs got bigger. Going out took the idea of the immersive clubbing experience democratised it along capitalist lines, if you had the money you could buy the 'experience'.

Also the 90s were the point where black music and urban culture became the default for many young people, at least in the UK. Jungle, with its edgy urban aggressiveness and spooky artificiality felt like a specificly UK future. A kind of urban paramilitary music.

On another topic: Philip, are you covering 'Twin Peaks'? Its impact was different in the UK I think. It's a big thing I think for a number of the New Adventures a bit later on.

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Jesse 5 years, 2 months ago

Alt-country and neo-swing, The Simpsons and The X-Files, Beck and Tarantino, anarchists and militiamen, Clinton and Gingrich, micro radio and the Internet, Gen X and...er, just X. A glorious moment between the Cold War and the War on Terror when it briefly seemed possible that jingoism might stop being one of the country's central organizing principles.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Rave culture, of course. Remember when E was being credited for everything up to and including the end of football hooliganism?

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

Maybe this is why the 90s is so difficult for the mainstream to define - there was simply too much going on. When you talk about earlier decades you kind of stop after about 5 or 6 things (60s - Space Race, Cuba, JFK, Beatles, Flower-power, umm...), but for the 90s you can list so much more, musically, politically, and fashion...ally.

Musically speaking, I used to have a copy of the NME Encyclopedia of Rock Music. Published in 1978, it was A4 in size, about a centimetre thick, and covered every "popular" music artiste ever - including Elvis Presley, Joni Mitchell, and the Stranglers. A decade later and you'd need something the size of the Holy Roman Bible to list every proponent of every style of music. Rock, Heavy Metal, Death Metal, Speed Metal, Psychobilly, Ska, Space Rock, Punk, Goth, Electronic, Euro-Pop, Folk-Rock, House, Techno, Hip-hop, Trip-hop, Indie...

My wife's an excellent barometer of the mainstream, and I asked her tonight to define certain decades. I got the usual for the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s...and then a blank look for the 90s.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

It's very true. TNG wasn't nearly as sterile and bloodless as some of its critics believe.

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jane 5 years, 2 months ago

Indeed.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 2 months ago

Robbie Coltrane as the Sixth Doctor. Now there's a thought.

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David Kalat 5 years, 2 months ago

Longtime lurker here, first time poster: it just so happens I rewatched the entire run of Prime Suspect a couple of months ago. Cramming what was supposed to be enjoyed over several years into a few weeks resulted in a strange over-emphasis of a detail of the storytelling I hadn't realized was such a part of the formula when I first saw them: conspiracies!

Yes, Prime Suspect has this in common with The X-Files, and it's worth noting in light of the recent discussion of conspiracies in '90s Doctor Who. In most (admittedly not all, but most) of the Prime Suspect stories, Tennison's superiors are complicit either in the crime, a cover-up of it, or at least are interfering massively in the investigation. The police consort with prostitutes (girls and boys, separately in two stories), collude with drug dealers, help war criminals hide, etc etc. To be honest, after a marathon of Prime Suspect I started to find all the conspiracy based storytelling to be dispiritingly formulaic. But then again, as I noted, it probably wouldn't have seemed so familiar when stretched out over 7+ years.

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Jesse 5 years, 2 months ago

after a marathon of Prime Suspect I started to find all the conspiracy based storytelling to be dispiritingly formulaic

I thought the show's quality declined a lot in the third series. After all the red herrings and genuine surprises of the first two stories, we got a mystery whose solution was telegraphed from the start. The subsequent seasons (or at least the ones that I saw) were better than the third, but they never returned to the power and originality of the first two years.

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Tommy 5 years, 2 months ago

I think Colin Baker's nastier Doctor moments were more in the realms of the boo-hiss baddy (and occasionally in some of Mindwarp's moments, and in the BF audio 'The Curse of Davros' a bloody terrifying one), rather than the damaged, complex antihero. The idea always seemed to be to make him sharply memorable and iconic in a very superficial way. Nothing deeper than that.

The JNT Doctors weren't so much antiheroes as just really crap protagonists, who just happened to work wonderfully on the few occasions when they were actually written *against* type by a more competent scribe. With Andrew Cartmel we got something of a stronger vision of who the Doctor could be, although it was largely pilfered from the comics of the time, and something of a repackaging of the Second Doctor. But it was more of a vision than we had under JNT and Saward, which I could only describe as 'a wino's vision' of the show.

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storiteller 5 years, 2 months ago

There’s a tendency in British drama to reveal huge amounts of information through action instead of dialogue in a way that’s just not done as often in American drama.... Police detectives become people who have gazed into the abyss for too long. Evil becomes the cruel underbelly of ourselves - a gnawing and persistent nastiness lurking about the margins of who we are.

I think the one person who does this extremely well in American drama is David Simon. The Wire is often extremely difficult to follow because the characters are so complex, there's so many of them, and there's so much going on. There's a ton of dialogue, but none of it is "about" the characters per se - all of it is key to moving the plot forward and the depth of the characters come through the plot. Considering this, I don't think it's coincidental that the actors playing two of the most challenging characters are British.

But then, there's also a reason why all of Simon's shows except for Homicide are on HBO, and it's not just the violence.

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Tommy 5 years, 2 months ago

I would define 90's Britain as being the hangover of the miserable 80's. At first TV pandered to a sense of British pride, with nostalgic repeats of homegrown cult TV as the last haven for the upbeat and happy, whilst contemporary TV was revelling in just how gritty and grim the modern world was, and in how much of a state of poverty the little people were in, and how desperate people were becoming to find someone to crucify.

And as comedy shows like Bottom, and Mike Leigh's strangely riveting grim existential drama film Naked made clear (featuring a volatile lonely damaged protagonist who seemed not entirely unlike the Ninth Doctor), it was poverty in all its forms, social, spiritual, moral, educational. Bottom seemed conscious of the fact, but a lot of other early 90's lads comedies just seemed aimed at intellects that wouldn't make room temperature.

Eventually something had to give, and I think with America beginning to outdo us in TV and cinema, and having a new prime Minister in Tony Blair who seemed to have had an awe and inferiority complex towards American life ever since his young days on cultural exchange programs.... at some point the British youth seemed to become ashamed to be British.

We wanted to be American, and so our culture became more and more a cheap imitation of the states, and we wanted to be more high living and classy. And through this we got a more aspirational, ruthlessly high-functioning culture of the perma-sneery and the frighteningly mechanical and ambitious, living in a barbed wire ivory tower of hubris. Whilst elsewhere more and more young people were going off the rails. From my cynical perspective, the 90's was when people just began to lose the ability to co-exist with each other, and the result was a lot of social ladder climbing.

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years, 2 months ago

So do I; they were my childhood. I was born in '91; as such, the whole two-year shitfest that was the 2000 Election and 9/11, etc., etc... was really an end of innocence. :-(

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Ununnilium 5 years, 2 months ago

Pretty much - Six isn't a '90s antihero so much as an unlikely hero in the same way that, well, most of the Doctors are, only written crap.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 2 months ago

That is one scary post.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 2 months ago

Something for the Davison/C.Baker book, then? The show doesn't haunt my dreams and nightmares like it does Henry's, but I think it would work as some supplementary material to understand the character of Davison's Doctor, and what his potential was as an actor for a part like that. Maybe it could fit in among the season 21 stories, a pop between realities after the Planet of Fire essay, since there you focussed on Grimwade writing as if the show had always been a top-notch serial storytelling production.

Then lead-in question then becomes, "What would a Davison Doctor written at top quality with the proper sci-fi soap dynamics toward which JNT had gestured at the beginning look like?" And the answer would be, maybe, something like Campion in space and time.

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encyclops 5 years, 2 months ago

I think of 90s pop culture as sort of a reiterated version of the late 60s/early 70s, at least in America under Clinton. Probably it was partly that I went to college during that time, but for me it was all about raised social consciousness, sexual liberation (queer rather than hetero this time), a more feminine energy despite the drab unsexiness of grunge, the rise of the Lilith Fair, etc. Grunge was a long-haired androgynous look and many (certainly not all) of those bands paid at least lip service to the idea that women weren't just objects (contrast with 80s pop-metal). Were raves that different from love-ins, once you take into account the differences in BPMs and drugs?

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encyclops 5 years, 2 months ago

Yes, I don't really remember it as a time of free-floating undefined dread.

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encyclops 5 years, 2 months ago

I think the ease with which a decade can be stereotyped says more about our perceptions of it than what was actually happening in it. As time goes on and those of us who remember the 90s firsthand get older and more irrelevant, there will be blogs written in the time of the 18th Doctor where the 90s are Nirvana, Reality Bites, the X-Files, flannel shirts, raves, and Netscape.

If the 90s really did begin a time of greater cultural diversity than in decades past, could part of the reason be the rise of cable and the internet, dividing our attention more than before and eventually enabling easier access to more specialized types of content? I also remember entering that decade with radio and MTV helping me find music (though I'd already begun supplementing with sources like the Trouser Press Record Guide) and ending it with radio and MTV being completely irrelevant to me, a series of repeating commercials.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 2 months ago

I think 70s nostalgia was a big part of 90s pop culture too: Ben is Dead magazine, an underground culture zine from the time, talks about a rise of interest in late-70s and early-80s pop culture near the middle and end of that decade at least They even did a compendium issue on the trend, which I still have, that was one of the first analyses I can recall seeing of the 20 year nostalgia cycle.

While mainstream music and culture seemed to actively rebel against the neon and metal excess of the 1980s, this belies the fact that big trends of the time (i.e. grunge) were actual evolutions of movements from the 1980s (which, of course, being underground, were reactions against such things to begin with). Also, as a lot of people who were children and teenagers in the 70s and 80s began to reach young adulthood, they naturally started to look back on things they remembered from their past.

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5tephe 5 years, 2 months ago

Yes, but the early 90s had their own flavour of Bush. How, I wonder does the deflation from Cold War tension to large, previously " freedom" identified nations embarking on a series of nasty, self serving off-shore open conflicts with no clear outcomes, feed into our perception of these past two decades? How does that aspect not define us?

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Froborr 5 years, 1 month ago

I dunno, I think this recurring character from the comics review webshow Atop the Fourth Wall is pretty much the teen experience of the 90s distilled. (I was born in '81.)

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David Gerard 3 years, 11 months ago

The thing I liked about Cracker was that it was a popuar TV show with a really smart lead character. And still a very human fuckup - I think of the intro where Fitz is hungover and his adult son is berating him as a fuckup.

It was also the first time I'd see Coltrane doing serious acting, as opposed to comedy - remember that he was first successful as a comedian. And he knocked it out of the park. A big unsubtle guy who does subtlety brilliantly.

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Matt 2 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Matt 2 years, 10 months ago

The 90s pans out differently across the UK.

Culturally, the aftershocks of rave head in two opposing directions. For some (stereotypically London and working class) the trajectory is jungle, garage and 2-step. Music that sounds like nothing else ever made. For others (stereotypically middle class and white) the retreat is via indie and britpop. Trip hop offers a stoned no-mans-land between the two where everyone leaves their trenches and plays table football on Christmas Day. Grunge is kind of a thing but Pearl Jam never have a number one album in the UK.

A "90s night" in the UK will mean something completely different depending on which of these two contexts you encounter. For one, it will be Oasis/Blur/Pulp. For the other, it'll be Metalheadz/Bukem/Omni Trio.

The 90s is as big for UK dance world* as the 60s is for anyone into rock. It's the decade that sets the standard.

*The Nuum, innit: http://www.kmag.co.uk/editorial/features/enter-the-nuum.html

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