Tag Archives: Star Wars

A Murdoch-free household is a galaxy too far

A Writer on Murdoch media.

NEWS sites are getting harder to access for free of late. Paywalls are up and apparently profitable for News Corp and Fairfax. Crikey has had one for years and last year Wendy Harmer’s flagship site The Hoopla shut the gate on free reads with its 34-cent per day subscription.

“Some of our most enduring book titles are in the Murdoch stable.”

Media-hungry online consumers are faced with a choice about where to get value for our money, but despite there being much more on offer than the old Fairfax vs Murdoch choice, the landscape is still dominated by these two big players.

This doesn’t matter if we’re not interested in reading anything published by the mainstream media. After all, progressive digital online media consumers have standards, right?

STICKER IT TO 'EM at News Limited.
STICKER IT TO ‘EM at News Limited.

Since I started participating in the social media I’ve seen plenty of lashes given to News Limited (the former name of News Corp). The bumper stickers: “Is that true, or did you read it in the (insert your state’s Murdoch daily/weekly)?” did the rounds. We all had a laugh and a chuckle, and called them ‘News Corpse’ when they changed names in 2013.

Seems newspaper reading is as much of a team sport as politics. Media hubs tend to pick sides on the major issues, and we follow their leads willingly.

But here in Queensland we’re hard-pressed to secure any kind of Fairfax title at a service station or shopping centre. If there are any copies of The Sydney Morning Herald or The Financial Review left by late morning, they’re down there in the shadow of the enormous stack of The Courier Mail which dominates the newsstands. I asserted as much on Twitter once and got rather angry responses from disbelieving right-wingers in the southern states, even after I posted the photographs which proved my point.

We have The Brisbane Times, a Queensland-focused online Fairfax news site (with no paywall as yet), but online news sites do not ‘hit the stands’ where three-word slogans are concerned.

WHERE'S FAIRFAX? 6.45am at the service station near my day job, no copies of SMH or The Financial Review available.
WHERE’S FAIR FACTS? 6.45am at the service station near my day job, no copies of SMH or The Financial Review available.

Clearly, Rupert rules the newsstands in Queensland, where voting habits tend to support his team, but what if I told you the coffee tables, magazine racks, DVD collections and bookshelves of staunch anti-Murdoch slacktivists across the country would reveal reading habits and literary choices replete with Rupert?

News Corp (and News Limited before it) is a lateral-thinking publishing company, not limited to news print or online hubs. Some of their lifestyle choices may shock you, from Gardening Australia magazine to MasterChef.

Movie production and DVD publishing are also a great forums for Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox empire striking back, so check your purchases of the Star Wars franchise if you want to be a Murdoch-free household.

Literature is not off the hook either. Some of our most enduring book titles are in the Murdoch stable. Lemony Snicket was borne of HarperCollins publishing in the years after 1989, when Murdoch acquired the company, along with the publishing rights of J.R.R. Tolkien. Who knew? Gandalf and Gollum turned team Murdoch!

I’m far from innocent, I hasten to add. The first job I managed to secure after a year of postgraduate study in the United Kingdom was a temp position at the enormous HarperCollins office in Hammersmith, west London, as a mail despatch boy pushing his trolley all day for a month in the late English winter of 1993.

Off the despatch room, entire skips of remaindered books sat outside, and we mail boys were allowed to take whatever we wanted before the contents went off to landfill. I retrieved plenty of Murdoch-owned titles by the likes of Janet Frame and C.S. Lewis.

My first freelance journalism income came from The Weekend Australian, when I managed to sell two stories to the Weekend Professional section. I’m acutely aware that for certain social media purists, me getting 75 cents per word from Rupert Murdoch is tantamount to betrayal.

Great English playwright Alan Bennett, the quietly spoken Yorkshireman who gave us The Madness of King George and The History Boys, had much higher standards than me when he made an admirable stand against Rupert Murdoch in 1998.

Offered an honorary degree by Oxford University, Bennett wrote to the institution which had accepted him (to read history) and Rupert Murdoch (to read philosophy, politics and economics) in the 1950s, to explain why he would have to decline due to the university’s creation of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Communications, funded by the graduate himself.

Being a playwright, Bennett added his own brand of literary flair for the Vice Chancellor: “If the university thinks it’s appropriate to take Rupert Murdoch’s money perhaps they ought to approach Saddam Hussein to found a chair in Peace Studies.”

Bennett had more cause than me for Murdoch disdain, having watched his friend – British television personality Russell Harty – exposed in The News of the World for alleged association with rent boys.

At Harty’s 1988 funeral, Bennett delivered a eulogy which revealed how Murdoch-employed reporters harangued his friend in his hospital room. They were after a ‘Harty Has AIDS’ headline, but they did not find it. ‘Harty Has Hepatitis’ would have had a better (and more factual) ring to it. Bennett is surely gleeful at the demise of The News of the World 15 years on, its criminal invasions of privacy the cause.

So, where does all this leave the average punter who doesn’t want to line Rupert’s pockets with purchases of online subscriptions, books, DVDs, movie tickets and the like?

To avoid new versions of Murdoch’s HarperCollins titles, your local second-hand bookshop would be a great start. Old mags are piling up in op-shops – try them for back issues of Rupert titles like Inside Out and Donna Hay magazine.

For news, perhaps fork out for a subscription to the non-Murdoch source of your choice. Try one of the indies, or make a donation to No Fibs.

3175132-darth_vader2Going to the movies and buying DVDs is going to be fraught with potential hypocrisy – do your research in the broad-ranging licensing network of Murdoch’s media empire.

Or you could just get over it and accept that somewhere, somehow, if you read you’re probably going to be lining Rupert’s pockets, even just a little.

Don’t feel bad, just don’t take it out on Bilbo Baggins – like the cornered Luke Skywalker, he’s possibly in shock at revelations about his new ‘father’, Rupert.

This article first appeared on NoFibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Boldly going nowhere: the inequality of Sci-Fi

SPACE PHENOMENON Patsy Trench (left) as Cadet Tina Culbrick in Phoenix Five.
SPACE PHENOMENON Patsy Trench (left) as Cadet Tina Culbrick in Phoenix Five.

A Writer explores the limits of the universe’s acceptance.

“WHEN I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” actress Whoopi Goldberg told Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, at a casting session for the show’s reboot in the early 1990s.

“I looked at it and I went screaming through the house: ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.”

That ‘black lady’ was African-American actor Nichelle Nichols, in the role of Lieutenant Uhura, a character who inspired even Dr. Martin Luther King to follow the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

Goldberg’s moment of validation and inspiration is now half a century behind us. In fifty years from now, will stories emerge about children today who saw themselves in the current crop of mainstream science fiction titles, or has Sci-Fi lost its edge within today’s asteroid belt of conservatism?

A bit of time travel might unearth some answers.

When George Lucas relaunched the Star Wars franchise in the late 1990s, he created a character whose name still draws ire across the geek chat rooms: Jar Jar Binks.

Designed to appeal to younger audiences in a similar manner to the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, Jar Jar, a Gungan from the planet Naboo, with his exaggerated mannerisms and flamboyant voice, seemed to have the opposite effect, and he was subsequently toned down and written into the sidelines of two further prequels.

The fear of flamboyant space travellers and aliens was not always so keen. Doctor Zachary Smith in Lost in Space (played by Jonathan Harris) camped and shrieked his way through the series, defying any notion of being sidelined.

BUMBLING BOOBY! Jonathan Harris as Dr Smith in Lost in Space.
BUMBLING BOOBY! Jonathan Harris as Dr Smith in Lost in Space.

That he was a comically selfish villain, opportunistic in his attempts to get back to Earth, leaving the Robinson family behind, didn’t seem to matter. Flamboyant was fine, as long as you were the bad guy.

More recently the Doctor Who franchise (and its spin-off, Torchwood) experimented with alternate sexuality in the form of the bisexual Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman), but his intergalactic promiscuity, and the untimely death of his longest love, ensured audiences never had to countenance this high-profile non-heterosexual character in a relationship as progressive as a commonplace same-sex marriage.

Sci-Fi lesbianism is even more marginal, offering only a handful of onscreen same-sex kisses and a whole universe of subtext in everything from Alien: Resurrection to Xena Warrior Princess.

Here in Australia, TV producers were quick to jump on the bandwagon of popular TV series set in the future, with a crop of titles on our small screens by the end of the 1960s.

One of these was Phoenix Five produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1968-69.

Amongst the show’s stars was Patsy Trench (now a London theatre guide) in the role of Cadet Tina Culbrick, the only female in a crew of three on the galactic space patrol ship of the show’s title, tasked with protecting the known universe from an evil humanoid and a rebel scientist in the year 2500.

“It was certainly not a progressive series, not in any sense,” Patsy said. “It made no social statements, it was just a series of adventures featuring three humans versus a number of weird aliens”.

“As for gender equality, the characters were all pretty well asexual. We wore identical clothing – a yellow tunic-type top (very cliché Sci-Fi) and very unflattering black ski pant-type trousers. There was absolutely no sense of sexual tension between the three of us and no sense of gender – equality or otherwise. Tina may have objected from time to time to being patronised by her male crew members, but that’s about as far as it went.

HIS AND HERS The key cast of Phoenix Five.
HIS AND HERS The key cast of Phoenix Five in their gender-neutral tunics (Clippings courtesy of Patsy Trench).

“Every single episode I had to say ‘space phenomenon ahead’, whatever that was supposed to mean.

“It became a running joke. I remember pressing a series of buttons without having a clue what they were or what I was supposed to be doing.

“Nowadays a director and actor might pay a bit of attention to that kind of detail, but not then.”

I asked Trench whether she believes Australia was capable in the 1960s of imagining a future that had racial/sexual equality?

“Probably not,” she said. “When I was living there in the late Sixties I did not get the impression the Aboriginal people featured much in people’s consciences, certainly not as they do now. I’m not sure when they were given full voting rights, but I think it was around that time, and I had no idea it had taken so long – the issue was never discussed.”

Does Trench think Sci-Fi has a role to play in imagining a more equal future?

“Of course, because the limits are as huge as our imaginations,” she said.

Territory upon which only the boldest equality explorers tread is one which has long been a source of some of Science Fiction’s most renowned characters: disability.

Few children of the Seventies will have missed the blind, wheelchair-bound Davros who first appeared in the 1975 Doctor Who ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ episodes, probably the most prominent example of a physically disabled humanoid character ever to feature on television screens in our living rooms at prime time.

In her enlightening feature ‘Disability in an alternative universe’ for the ABC’s Ramp Up disability discussion forum, Leah Hobson gets right to the point: “As a fan of science fiction and fantasy – genres which most often ask ‘what if?’ in more playful and profound ways – I notice the dearth of ‘good’ stories about disability”.

“If a character is portrayed with any sort of disability,” Hobson wrote, “a realistic depiction means you’re typically male, and you’re typically either bound to a bitter and/or evil existence with a good dose of sexual openness thrown in just to really show you’re evil.”

Exploring whether there is any positive purpose to depictions of Transhumanism (the human condition enhanced by technology) in Sci-Fi, Hobson found more questions than answers.

I started to enjoy Doctor Who when River Song (played by Alex Kingston) became a regular character, and, in geeky conversations at work about the future of the show, I threw in my view that the show’s producers might be grooming River Song to be the series’ first female Doctor.

And why not? She was riveting, charismatic, intelligent and kept taunting viewers on her backstory with her cheeky warning: “Spoilers, sweetie”.

During 11th Doctor Matt Smith’s unsuccessful regeneration in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ episode, I hoped to see River’s signature curls emerge from the amniotic glow to be reborn as his replacement. Sure, she was standing right there watching, but this is Sci-Fi, anything could happen, right?

But The Doctor was killed (to tell you more would be a spoiler), along with all my hopes for River Song, who joined Amy, Rose, Martha, Tegan and Sarah Jane, playing second fiddle through time and space.

Dr King made a resounding point when he learnt that Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave the cast of Star Trek. As she recalled, he said: “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed, because, you see, your role is not a black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”

Until mainstream science fiction producers start opening a few more doors, and opening them wider than Roddenberry ever did, equality in Sci-Fi will remain far, far away.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.