Less concerned with who’s first up against the wall than with how to decorate it

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Jack Graham

Jack Graham writes and podcasts about culture and politics from a Gothic Marxist-Humanist perspective. He co-hosts the I Don't Speak German podcast with Daniel Harper. Support Jack on Patreon.


  1. TomeDeaf
    December 14, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

    “The irony is that modern Doctor Who is arguably a lot less like Epic Theatre in this sense than most classic Who manages to be by accident!”

    This is an excellent observation.

    Conversely, I think that staging Brecht in the modern world requires real imagination and stepping out of one’s hard-learned sense of “professionalism” or “verisimilitude”. Brecht is very, very easy to do badly, flatly, unengagingly, and preachily. In the UK, only the National Theatre’s version of the Threepenny Opera a couple of years ago has impressed me.

    Might I suggest “defamiliarization effect” (a word you nearly use at one point) rather than “alienation” as a better translation of Verfremdungseffekt? It’s what is taught now to students of Brecht in German departments, I believe (now being about 4 years ago, when I last studied him), to re-emphasise the idea of showing you anew and in a strange light the apparatus with which you have grown comfortable as opposed to laying too much emphasis on “wanting to upset/annoy/piss off the audience”, the unfortunate, quasi-trolling connotations of “alienate”. Though in the case of Brecht such reactions may well be valid too, and the term works well for old school fans tearing their hairs out over Love & Monsters.

    Incidentally, I think the only way a modern DW episode could achieve the same degree of “showcasing its producedness” would be a live broadcast. Which I would be totally up for, especially if you have a clever subversive writer doing it who can weaponise the concept of “event TV” (this is what’s going on while you’re gathered around the telly, perhaps? idk).


    • Haze
      December 15, 2018 @ 8:38 pm

      While not super-expert on Brecht, I like Jack’s use of “estrangement”. It seems to catch the idea, somehow, in a much less clunky way than words like “alienation” or “defamiliarisation”.


      • Jake
        December 16, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

        Fascinating indeed. I think “alienation” here may after all be the best term, simply for the echo it carries of “alien”, not an unrelated concept. Two further observations:

        1) Special effects date, as do the conventions used to give the impression of “realism” at any given moment. Sure, the production values of classic Doctor Who were shoddy even for the period, but part of the “alienation” we feel watching them now is, simply, historical distance. Anyone going back to the current episodes forty years on may not feel so differently.

        2) A degree of estrangement is built into Doctor Who through the nature of the main character, who is not human, not bound by human limitations, and prone to “impossible” flippancy in the face of life or death situations. The extremely non-psychological acting of Tom Baker would make perfect sense in a Brecht play. Some of this carries over into the current run: to whatever degree the Doctor remains “alien”—which varies with each incarnation of the character—(s)he can perform some of the functions of a Brechtian narrator. I would also point to John Simm’s Master as a figure defined far more by “gesture, demonstration, etc” than by any kind of psychology—the apex of “alienation” in the modern show being his season 3 dance to the Scissor Sisters.


    • Sleepyscholar
      December 16, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

      Personally I agree that ‘defamiliarisation’ is preferable, and it was the one I used in my brief flirtation with Russian formalists. ‘Estrangement’ sounds, to me, too much like it relates to the imposition of emotional detachment, or the ‘Othering’ of someone or something. And ‘alienation’ has all sorts of baggage from other uses.


  2. Daibhid C
    December 14, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    Fascinating stuff.

    “Classic Who is arguably far more concerned with political issues (re society and history) than New Who. But it also accidentally estranges the audience by highlighting its own processes of production, simply by virtue of its production values being so shoddy that it inadvertently showcases them!”

    “The irony is that this becomes possible because of a wider technological revolution in visual arts which makes such things so commonplace that they are expected, taken for granted, barely seen by many. They fail to estrange because such aesthetics are now part of how the illusion of realism – as currently understand by audiences – is achieved.”

    I don’t know if I’m reading it right, but this made me think of the spider-robot “bumping into the camera” in “The End of the World”. It’s a bit the viewer maybe doesn’t even notice (I don’t think I did), and if they do, they laugh briefly then forget about it. But if you think about it, it’s a real “What is the reality here?” moment. Because in a realist sense, we’re not supposed to think there’s a camera in place on Platform One. On the other hand, there’s not a spider-robot in the studio, because they got CGIed in later. This is the new production team deliberately homaging a moment from “The Web Planet” that probably had the original production team tearing their hair out!

    And it passes largely unnoticed, and certainly unalienating. A spider-robot bumped into the camera, well, these things happen, even if they can’t. You might as well question why making CGI light sources look “realistic” means carefully duplicating a camera artefact…


  3. Lambda
    December 16, 2018 @ 12:16 am

    I like to claim that the meaning of art is found in the ways it chooses to be unrealistic. At least, I don’t think it’s an accident that my drama consumption is almost exclusively animation and old sci-fi, and almost completely non-American. (American TV being much closer to cinema than the theatrical roots of British or Japanese television.)

    Animation has some interesting effects on the ‘realism of form’ thing. I do wonder what the implications are of stuff like Sound! Euphonium having incredibly realistic-looking backgrounds carefully based on real-world locations and depictions of playing which wow music geeks in how everyone is actually pressing down the right valves at the right time, but still highly stylised character designs and the occasional not remotely realistic looking cake. Or KareKano using different animation styles depending on whether its heroine is in “slouch around the house” mode, “model student” mode etc.


  4. Sleepyscholar
    December 16, 2018 @ 11:53 pm

    On ‘the concentration on fan reception and politics is far more about consumption’ I feel I should mention that much of fan studies concentrates explicitly on consumption, as, for example, in Cornell Sandvoss’s Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. The whole field seems dedicated to the notion that fandom (which in fan studies means ‘the state of being a fan,’ rather than ‘the community of fans,’ as fans themselves use it) is all about the consumption of a fan object.

    My attempts to point out fan activity where there is no fan object (such as Furries and tabletalk RPG) are met by blank looks.

    There may, or may not, be a political reason underpinning this obsessive insistence that fandom, an affective relationship which may occasionally operate according to logic somewhat unlike mainstream capitalism, in in fact nothing more than a particularly intense form of capitalist consumption.


  5. Jake
    December 17, 2018 @ 12:17 am

    Serious question, then: what is being a fan? That is, in the absence of an object, what defines the difference between a fan and, say, a hobbyist? Is it just a matter of having roots in a particular subcultural history?


    • Sleepyscholar
      December 17, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

      Not ‘just’ (as I’ve learned from workshops with fan audiences over the years!). But that’s a big part of it. The ‘original’, ‘literal’ meaning of fan (which originated at the end of the 19th century with US baseball fans, fact fans!) surely is of relatively little importance compared to the vast consciousness of what it means to be a fan which has developed over the subsequent century and a bit.

      The difference between a ‘fan’ and a ‘hobbyist’ is a highly subjective area. I used to be involved in a number of fandoms, trading with Doctor Who zines, music zines, SF zines, games zines, personal zines and Diplomacy zines. Even though the Diplomacy zines were called fanzines, many members of that, er, hobby, were more comfortable calling it ‘The Hobby’ rather than Diplomacy fandom. On the other hand many of the perzine editors, despite having no explicit fan object or affiliation, were adamant that they were a part of a nebulous entity called ‘Fandom’. SF Fandom was probably the closest (perhaps because the oldest) avatar of this nebulous Fandom.


  6. Kate Orman
    April 16, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    It took me months to make the time to read this, but I’m awfully glad I did.

    As a child I watched Doctor Who and other shows in that twilight state of understanding, where the events are simultaneously “only a TV show” and real — the confusion that puts kids behind the sofa. There was a similar overlap between the “reality” of the events of, say “Pyramids of Mars”, and the un-reality of certain special effects. Sutekh lifts the TARDIS key on its chain, and it’s obviously being dangled from a couple of wires — but, at the same time, it’s being moved by Sutekh’s mental powers. I wonder if Brecht’s estrangement generates a similar overlapping state in the audience?


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