Recently I re-watched Battlestar Galactica. No, not that one, but the 1978-1979 series that originally aired on ABC, complete with tinny Cylons, hysterically questionable ‘triad’ costumes and a ‘daggit’ named Muffy. A while ago Kim Akass pointed out that she grew up alongside Dr Who. BSG did not run for nearly long enough for me to grow up alongside it, but it certainly was an essential part of my younger years. Watching BSG again started me thinking about television, and memory, and as a result, this post can’t be anything but a personal take on the two.
Firstly, that part of my life was spent in South Africa, during the final decades of the apartheid regime. Like Toby Miller, therefore, I am in the position (which is, as Toby reminds us, perhaps not quite as unusual as you might think for my generation on a world-wide scale), of being able to remember the introduction of television, as the apartheid government, run by the largely Afrikaans National Party, fiercely resisted the medium, fearing its capacity to introduce dangerous foreign concepts like equality and human rights into South African living rooms. Dr Albert Hertzog, holding rather quaint title of Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, the governmental post responsible for broadcasting, was the medium’s most vocal opponent, to the extent that he earned the nickname ‘Dr. No’.
Television, as ‘Dr No’ observed in an address to the South African Senate on 21st March, 1960, was a ‘bigger menace than the atom and hydrogen bombs’ (according to Bernard Cros, Hertzog is apparently quoting an American scholar here, but I have been unable to trace the reference – if anyone knows who it is, please let me know!). The introduction of this ‘menace’ was consequently equated with the end of civilisation – which in this case meant the end of White, Afrikaner rule of the country. Opposition to television was thus part of an ultra-nationalistic, distinctly Afrikaans position, as Bernard Cros explains in an article written twenty years after the introduction of television to the country. (In an aside, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I did not know until I read Cros’s article that South Africa was offered television as early as 1929 by John Logie Baird, its inventor, who had his proposal to introduce the device turned down because of the cost of implementation). As Cros points out, introducing the ‘little black box’, as it was widely referred to then, would inevitably lead to the spread of the seditious influence of Anglo-American culture and morality, which included (gasp!) integrated societies. In the white population, support for the medium came largely from English-speaking South Africans, who were in the minority and who also tended to be more liberal in their political outlook. Cros quotes from an editorial in The Cape Times that identifies the ‘proper’ use of television as ‘supplementing education and generally improving the knowledge and sharpening the critical faculties of the nation,’ suggesting perhaps that the liberal sector of the population were not quite as progressive as they liked to believe.
Following changes in the government that led to Hertzog’s departure, the National Party succumbed to growing public and political pressure to introduce television, and after a limited service in major cities, television broadcasting went nationwide in 1976. However, by this stage the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was under the influence of the ‘Broederbond’ (or Afrikaner ‘Brotherhood’), a not-so-secret society dedicated to the aggressive preservation of Afrikaner national identity whose members held key positions of power in government and in organisations such as the SABC. As Cros indicates, a commission set up to investigate the impact of television in the country in the early 1970s had been comprised largely of Broederbond members, and as a result, television in South Africa was implemented strictly within the ultra-conservative and ‘Christian’ parameters set out by the Afrikaner ruling party, despite Prime Minister B.J. Vorster’s emphasis on ‘objectivity and balance’ as key to the broadcaster’s remit in his opening speech for the service on 5th January, 1976. Initial broadcasts were restricted to the two ‘official’ languages in the country, English and Afrikaans, awkwardly sharing one channel on alternate evenings, and alternate Sundays, which were largely devoted to religious programming. As Cros points out, in the end television was not the hydrogen bomb Dr No had feared, but due to the government’s strict control, neither was it the tool for ‘proper’ education that the liberals had hoped for.
My early memories of television are a mix of programmes laboriously dubbed into Afrikaans (including The Sweeney – trust me, Cockney slang does not lend itself well to dubbing), oddly innovative children’s programming (also mostly in Afrikaans), all mixed in with largely American imports (an Equity ban preventing actors from ‘performing’ for segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa was extended in 1978 to include television programmes) including Battlestar Galactica, which, thankfully, escaped tortuous translation into Afrikaans. I would love to be able to say that I was aware of the government’s heavy ideological imprint on television in general, and on news programming in particular, but it was not until I entered secondary and higher education that vague suspicions that all was not quite ‘right’ with South African television hardened into horrified certainty for me. Along with that came the certainty that media literacy is crucial to understanding not only our cultural and political environments, but also to understanding who we are and how we are situated within them.
What does any of this have to do with re-watching BSG?
Only this. I agree with Jason Jacobs that it is important not to lose sight of the text in television studies. After all, a fascination with texts is what leads many of us (myself included) to study the medium in the first place. The text is the heart of television studies and, as James Bennett points out in his comment on Jason’s blog, there are those among us who are heart specialists, to push the metaphor further, and who are able to delicately open a text to reveal hitherto hidden and rich meanings (as Jason himself does in his piece on True Detective). However, it is also important to remember that those texts are not equally distributed or understood across the world. BSG was for me a haven at a difficult stage of my life, a place I could retreat to replete with people who meant as much (if not more in some cases) to me as my real world relationships. A strict focus on the text would ignore the innumerable and sometimes unexpected ways in which these programmes might become imbricated in our lives and memories, as well as the complex industrial and political systems that enable them to do so. In my life, ‘television’ is more than a collection of individual texts or paratexts, but also more than an industry or a political and social phenomenon. Television is a source of solace during times of heartbreak. It provides companionship when I am alone in the house but it is also the source of shared laughter and enjoyment, contributing to that set of jokes and cultural references that become part of a family’s unique ‘language’ (no-one outside our family would understand why my husband and I periodically and enthusiastically yell ‘the Hommes of Joop!’ at each other, for example). It is of course also work – the focus of much of my writing and teaching. And that’s just me. Never mind the millions of others who all engage with this medium in their own ways. Textual analysis will always be important, but for me it is one component of a medium that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
By the way, in terms of text, BSG revisited was simply HORRIBLE, proving the old adage that you can’t go home again. And in the case of apartheid South Africa, that really is a good thing.
Debra Ramsay teaches film and media at Nottingham and Leicester Universities. She is currently working on a book on contemporary representations of World War II in American film, television and games (Routledge, forthcoming). She has published articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.