by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

At Last, A Meeting Of My Two Interests

Posted 19 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by two interests, I mean Doctor Who and archival research.

The BBC, it seems, is opening its Doctor Who archives and making them available on the web.

Nick, it need not be said, is neither to hold nor bind after discovering this.

The archive begins, chronologically, with an exploratory document outlining the practicality of developing a science-fiction programme for television—and the document is awesome: at one point, it suggests that “More pretentiously, far less ably, the novels of CS Lewis likewise use the apparatus of SF in the service of metaphysical ideas” (see here for that document, written in 1962).

I guess nobody in the BBC was a big fan of Lewis’s work?

That document also outlines the fact that science fiction is overwhelmingly an American genre, which I find fascinating: no-one would argue, now, that there’s a distinctly British flavour of sci-fi, but this document largely predates that time.

And the archive ends with the announcement of the new series in Radio Times.

Surely no more incentive is needed to go and rummage through this? Everyone loves archives, yes?

Well, how about this audience report on “An Unearthly Child,” the pilot episode? According to page two, “The acting throughout was considered satisfactory.”

Or this concept report from 1963, which talks about the “unsexual” nature of science fiction and emphasises the need to avoid the generic tendency against in-depth character development.

Or the image gallery, including this image of William Hartnell from the pilot episode. (What a silly hat!)

Or . . .

I’m talking to myself here, aren’t I? You all disappeared at the first link and are now happily rummaging through the archives, aren’t you?

Thought so.

Ack! It's Everywhere!

Posted 4 November 2008 in by Catriona

Okay, this rant is a clash between two of my current obsessions: Bones and sentence-level punctuation and grammar errors.

I’m not concerned about my obsession with Bones: it’s one of the few shows that we actually watch on telly, rather than waiting for the DVDs to come out, so it’s not much of an obsession. But the show is simultaneously grotesque and frequently hilarious, and I’ve always enjoyed David Boreanaz much more in comic roles.

(Angelus, for example, was much more fun than Angel—not that Angelus was funny. Well, in an incredibly dark sense, he was.)

The obsession with punctuation is not something I’ve kept secret.

I don’t claim for an instant that my writing is perfect at the sentence level. In fact, I know it’s not. Sometimes, when I look back over the past entries on the blog, I have to silently correct embarrassing mistakes that I should have spotted the first time around—especially in the live-blogging, though I tend to leave anything that’s not a factual error, to maintain the authenticity of the process.

But I maintain that it is at least competent.

And for five years or more, I’ve been teaching writing courses that rarely extend beyond the paragraph level, so I’ve become more and more attuned to spotting sentence-level errors—largely, of course, the more common errors.

And today those two obsessions clashed horribly, when I was looking up the details on a forthcoming episode of Bones on Your TV:

Bones
The Pain in the Heart
9.30pm – 10.30pm Seven
Monday 10 November 2008
In an episode that will rock the lab to it’s core, a well known serial killer strikes again and when crutial evidence mysteriously goes missing, every Jeffersonian employee becomes a suspect.

The odd thing is that I’ve never noticed this quantity of errors on the site before.

I could let the absence of a hyphen in the compound adjective slide.

But that mistake with “its”? That’s basic—and it’s not that difficult to distinguish between the two uses. Though we all type the wrong one occasionally, it’s not too tricky to correct any errors on a read-through.

And the misspelling of “crucial”? Oh, lord.

In the courses that I teach, we have a draconian attitude towards spelling errors because, as we emphasise each semester, nothing will ruin your credibility with a reader faster than a spelling error.

That’s certainly true here—especially since any computer-based spell checker would have picked that one up.

The Television Without Pity Malaise

Posted 2 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been putting off writing about my current discomfort with the way in which Television Without Pity has been reshaped recently.

But I’m cranky today.

Partly it’s general end-of-semester tiredness.

Partly it’s because I just made it to the end of a Lego Batman level, realised my computer-controlled companion—needed to help me operate a two-handed switch—had disappeared, and had to run all the way to the beginning of the level, where I found him hiding under a set of stairs. Why? Who knows. He wasn’t stuck; he was just standing there.

Partly it’s because I’ve finally begun reading a Margery Allingham novel—the only one of the four great female writers of Golden Age detective fiction whom I haven’t read—and, only twenty-two pages in, Albert Campion is irritating me.

But partly it’s because I read a Television Without Pity recap this morning, for the first time in some time, and it reminded me of why I don’t bother with the site much.

Now, I never was an indiscriminate reader of the site. The recaps are enormously long, which pleased me when it was a show I enjoyed—I adored the Deadwood recaps, for example—but bored me when I wasn’t interested in the show in question.

Fair enough: I didn’t read those ones, and everyone was happy.

But the recappers were variable, as well. Generally, the standard was high, but sometimes the general attitude towards the show, the recapper’s tone, or the framework for their recaps began to frustrate me after a while.

One recapper, in particular, I had to give up on, despite the fact that they recapped shows in which I was interested, because something about their writing brought the teacher out in me. It wasn’t to do with the quality of the writing, per se. I don’t quite know what it was, except it brought out in me an overwhelming urge to write “so what?” in the margins.

(I do not, by the way, write “so what?” in the margins of my students’ work. But we do tell them to apply what we call the “so what?” test, to make sure that every sentence and every paragraph in their writing advances their central argument. That was the problem, for me, with this recapper. When it reached the point where they declared that the episode they were recapping that week would be read through Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” despite the fact that there was no real or concrete connection between the two texts, I decided I was out.)

But that’s the nature of a large site such as Television Without Pity: you read the bits you enjoy and ignore the rest.

Then it all started going rather odd.

The first thing that annoyed us was the cancelling of the Doctor Who recaps: I’d stopped reading them, but Nick still enjoyed them.

Recaps are cancelled fairly frequently, if the reader figures are low or the show turns out to be either less successful or less interesting than anticipated.

But these were cancelled with only a brief, bitter message: “If you want to know what Bit Torrent is, ask a Doctor Who fan.” When people queried this, they added an explanatory note: “(Translation: y’all have already seen the episodes by the time Sci Fi airs them anyway.)”

Well, yes. Because it’s a British show—and when you’re writing for the Internet, not all your readers are going to be American. And as Nick pointed out, people watch the show then read the recap. How does it matter when they watch it?

Still, that’s editorial policy. It annoyed us—and many other readers—but it’s their decision.

As was selling the website to Bravo Television, but that’s where they really lost me. And, indeed, the three creators of the site and some of their longest-serving recappers also left rapidly after the sale.

Which is when I noticed a noticeable drop in the quality of the writing.

It was evident even in some of the long-serving recappers, such as the one who, I noted above, brought out the blue pencil in me. It used to be, with their recaps, that I’d read them and think, “Wow, this recapper needs some rigorous editing.” Now I read them and think, “Wow, this recapper used to be edited rigorously, after all.”

But take, as a different example, this recap of a 30 Rock episode:

“Hey dummy I was just telling all these dummy’s that we used to go to the park and make fun of all the joggers,” says Duffy to Lemon. Lunch arrives and Lemon and Duffy double-team Toofer for having ordered a salad from a burger joint. The whole room yucks it up as Duffy casually puts his arm around Lemon who suddenly becomes aware of the moment. A single Cheeto stays dangling in her mouth.

That quote’s from the second page of the recap, but it’s not the only example. For example, there’s also this one, from the first page: “In walks Kenneth who looses it like he’s just seen Hannah Montana.”

No. I’m sorry, but this degree of poor sentence-level writing is sufficient to completely kill my interest in a professional website.

Even when the show or recapper held no interest for me, I could at least recognise that the entire site was rigorously edited. It was, in fact, one of the aspects that appealed to me the most.

To see this quantity of basic grammatical and punctuation errors on a site such as Television Without Pity is bad enough.

Throw in the new Flash-driven site, where it’s almost impossible to find the recaps among the advertisements, video files, and picture galleries, and I’m not interested any more.

It’s a shame, though. I know that certain groups of readers, such as the ones who run this site, have always been uncomfortable with the level of moderation in the TWoP forums and the perceived socio-cultural snobbery behind the site, but at least it was a site that recognised that since the Internet is a text-driven medium, it should be held to the same standards as we anticipate from print media.

Not any more.

And that is a shame.

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