Sunday Past Times

Sunday, September 11, 2005 by

Remember when television used to look forward to the future? Now it’s all about living in the past. There is a constant flow of archive clip-based shows, a schedule of regurgitated music videos or comedy sketches usually interspersed with pundits describing in tooth-aching detail what we have just seen/are about to see. In this way, TV endlessly replicates and remythologises itself.

BBC2 weekend morning schedule-filler Sunday Past Times is one of the latest and more interesting variations on the format, each episode organised around a topic, such as home, school etc, as represented on television in years gone by. It benefits from an absence of talking heads (apart from that of “bubbly” presenter Nadia Sawalha), and from its selection of more obscure archive documentary clips. The reporters holding muffler microphones and lab-coated scientists pulling levers reinforce suspicions that the past was in fact a dreamy realm of thick-rimmed glasses and beards, wonky graphics and computers the size of Huddersfield.

The show entered a particularly mad area this week as the theme was “the future” as represented by the TV of the past, summoning various vintage clips from Tomorrow’s World, an apparently serious feature on how to communicate with inhabitants of UFOs, and the obligatory weirdly/disconcertingly accurate/blasé American expert of the 1960s, chucking out casual comments about climate change and eugenics like he was taking in some shooting practice on the local firing range. Most bizarre was a montage of period pieces speculating about how television itself might evolve in the future. Predictions of TV shopping and instant voting were duly replayed, and there was a pretend 21st century newscast circa the early 1970s, hosted by two utopian beings in synthetic costumes. This came complete with interactive elements (a subtitle reads “for more information, see Channel C8″; the equivalent of the red button), and a studio background and sound-effects remarkably close to the style of Look Around You. Even if television never reached this minimalist intensity in reality, one can’t help wondering whether fictional texts such as this helped inspire the parody.

Following 1951′s Festival of Britain, with its optimistic transformations of domestic space, and then energised by NASA’s outer-space pursuits, television celebrated the modernist era of scientific progress of which its own development was an inseparable part. But sheer accumulation of material and multi-channel commercialisation has inevitably led the medium to collapse in on itself. Dulled by over-familiarity, and with its innovative thunder stolen by the internet, television has become a postmodern mélange of retro-chic, garish interactivity and dissolution of the real/fiction boundary. TV has gone from the strident linearity of the M1 to the terminal circularity of the M25. The archive-resurrected US futurologist put his trigger-finger on this when he reminded his audience that “progress” and “the future” were not the same, but rather two distinct lines of thought (perhaps a more radical idea in the 1960s than today). Television now suggests the idea of the future as vacuum, with nostalgia series in years to come consisting of nothing beyond past compilations, countdowns and reminisci-packages. “Remember 2005? That was the year of all those great compilations from the ’80s … and The All-Time Greatest Soap Murders, and Britain’s Greatest Bridges … now let’s take a trip back to those heady days” etc.

Is there another reason, beyond the obvious economics of recycling, why the future has been abandoned as a positive destination for TV entertainment? Significantly, Tomorrow’s World ended in 2002, viewers deeming it obsolete, its cosy everyday vision of self-cleaning suits and intelligent saucepans all used up. But it is not quite accurate to say that television is no longer interested in the future; in fact over the last 20 years or so it has changed trajectory, from a utopian dream of domestic bliss to a dark dystopia, taking in environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, global terrorism and mass social breakdown.

Look Around You ridicules the past optimism of popular science, and it could be argued that all the current retro-compilations and pastiches are in fact a flight into the past, an escape not only from the real anxieties of the present but from possible future horrors. Such fearful scenarios and moral dilemmas are depicted in epic, blockbusting terms, as in the BBC’s If … series (for instance, “If … The Toxic Timebomb Goes Off”, “If … TV Goes Down the Tube”, or, more ambiguously, “If … Drugs Were Legal”), the Supervolcano disaster simulation, and 2003′s The Day Britain Stopped, a speculative drama which imagined the calamitous after-effects of a transport seizure.

The BBC’s 1984 TV film Threads, imagining the consequences of a nuclear attack upon a British city, could be seen as the detonator of this new mutant genre, a product of a culture irradiated by fear and doubt. The realisation that the environment is being destroyed by pollution may also have been a major factor, as this has (rightly) become a mainstream pre-occupation in everything from current affairs to kids’ TV. And, as mentioned above, technology has enabled many seismic events to be projected in advance (although predictions of a hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast did not prevent the US government being taken by surprise). News channels have the means to broadcast instantly from disaster zones across the world, bringing future fears closer to home (“This could happen to us”).

Here is the narrative change: instead of infinite freedom we are presented with eternal gridlock, and effortless manipulation of our surroundings has been replaced by powerlessness in the face of (industrial/natural/political) “forces beyond our control”. Post-[insert terror date here] it is no longer safe for interviewers to ask schoolkids about the future and elicit quirky and precocious answers (as in the clips dredged up by Sunday Past Times); the future is no longer a playful space, but an incident room reserved for disaster technicians and emergency planning groups (and, again, when real life consultants appear on “documentaries” about events which have not yet happened, the difference between reality and fiction becomes blurred).

Being bombarded by TV images of campaigns to “liberate” by annihilation and terrorism, we are reminded that we could be vaporised at any moment, like unfortunate contestants randomly exterminated in a Dalek-run game show. An entire city might be wiped away as easily as a tea-stain on a Formica table; there might be no future at all. The ultimate TV future-shock assignment is coverage of humanity’s own apocalypse: getting the best angle on the story, convening the panel of experts, tracking the countdown to the meteor’s impact. But imagine all the build-up without an audience to enjoy the spectacle – where’s the satisfaction in that?

So television’s ongoing history of things to come has been subjected to a drastic rewrite, its bright dream of automated domesticity dimming to a global nightmare. It’s no wonder, then, that we take refuge in retro-spoofs and quaint compilations. Who would have imagined, way back in the past, that such ephemeral material would eventually form the bulk of our psychic barricade against the future?


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