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May 01, 2010

Responses to Nortongate

It’s nearly a week now since Nortongate, the inclusion of a banner trailing the following programme over the climax to an episode of Doctor Who. There was the outcry from people watching the programme (over 5000 complaints). Then the inevitable backlash from those saying that it’s typical Whovian over-reaction and it just makes them all look like nerds.

I’m not a major Doctor Who fan, but like anyone born in the UK in from the mid-50s to the 70s I grew up with it, it’s not a matter of being a fan, it’s just part of your life, like breathing.You don’t consider whether you like doing it or not, you just do it.

But I complained, as did a few other people I know. And for all of us it was for the first time. But it wasn’t really just about the climax being ruined, I think it’s part of a greater fear.

I’ll try and explain.

Experiencing art is an integral part of the human condition. We need it because engagement with it transports us from our normal daily lives. It elevates us. It varies from person to person what art gets to us, but everyone really human gets it from somewhere. It might be music, movies, painting, but while we’re engaged in it the real world is gone and we’re somewhere else. Psychologists call it telepresence, writers called it the pathetic effect, movie analysts call it the diegetic effect, but it’s a precious thing. It’s why people get angry if people talk in cinemas, or if a mobile goes off in a theatre. Because it’s denying the opportunity for everyone else to experience that moment of transportation.

Putting a banner across a TV screen to advertise another programme does just that, particularly if it obscures a quarter of the screen, particularly if it’s during the climax, and particularly if it’s the first really good episode of the season. It denies that emotional experience of being taken into the moment.

Philip K Dick when discussing his inspiration for Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep spoke about a line he read from a Nazi’s diary, in which the Nazi spoke about being kept awake by the sound of crying children. Instead of a normal human response, this person was just annoyed that he couldn’t get to sleep. PKD postulated that the author wasn’t really human because he had this fundamental element missing from his psyche. He was an android, a robot that just looked like a human.

People who vandalise art, like slashing at a Picasso or something, do so because they know it will shock people. They want a reaction and to have the notoriety that comes with that. That’s bad enough, but these people are human enough to realise that people will react. What’s worrying is that someone at the BBC deliberately vandalised their own art, in fact several people colluded in it. They must have done so without realising that it was vandalism, without knowing that there could have been a pathetic/diegetic effect there to undermine, or that there was and it didn’t matter. This must only make sense if they don’t realise that this is what art is for. They have never experienced a fundamental and essential part of what being human is. I bet they talk in cinemas too.

I think this is what prompted the outcry. It’s not just that people were deprived of an emotional experience that is really a basic human need, but that there are people who are essentially incapable of experiencing human needs in control of one of the major creative institutions in the UK.

If the androids are in control, and if the majority of people don’t care that the androids are in control, then we’re really screwed as a species. The least we can do is complain.

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