From Buffy to Supernatural – when SF TV goes postmodern
With Apollo 1 8 and Troll Hunter hitting cinema screens, it feels like mockumentaries and the “found footage” genre are more popular than ever before. But it’s not just film that enjoys a good bit of juddering hand-held shooting (bonus points if you get the boom mike lurching into shot for added realism). Here's our list of some of sci-fi and fantasy's best mockumentaries. Some of them are more rigidly entwined with all those cliches than others, but they all have nods to the genre, whether it's with full-blown Blair Witch -style filming, a video blog, or the classic – someone putting a hand up in front of the camera and demanding people stop filming...
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(Season 7, episode 16)
Premise: Former supervillain Andrew, now a hostage (though he prefers the term guestage) in Buffy’s Potenials-filled house, decides to make a video documentary of Buffy’s latest attempt to save the world. Buffy is none too keen on starring, but the other members of the extended Scooby Gang are less camera shy. Okay, Spike pretends to be all, “Get that camera away from me,” but outtakes prove it was all an act, as he prepares for “Take Two”. Andrew’s incisive (or maybe downright rude) interviewing techniques even bring Xander and Anya’s rocky relationship to an amicable end.
The footage in Andrew’s head (which we also get to see) is somewhat better shot, lit and edited than the actual video footage. But Andrew’s hand-drawn graphics to illustrate the story so far have a charm all their own. Andrew hasn’t decided yet whether the final documentary will be called Buffy, The Slayer Of The Vampire or Buffy, The Slayer Who Knew No Fear , but Xander prefers the latter title, so he’ll probably go with that one.
What? You didn’t realise Andrew has a secret, unrequited love for Xander? You won’t be able to deny it after watching Andrew’s video footage. Sometimes it less of a documentation of Buffy’s battle preparations, and more of a Xander stalker movie. Anya didn’t know how close to the truth she was when she asked, “Why can’t you just masturbate like everybody else?”
Best in-joke: In a season where Buffy seemed to spout a Henry V -style “Once more unto the breach…” monologue every week to inspire the Potentials, “Storyteller” pokes fun at what was fast becoming a cliché: “Honestly, gentle viewer, these motivating speeches of hers tend to get a little long,” says Andrew to camera, walking out of the kitchen. “I’ll take you back in there in a little while.” A scene later, Andrew wonders, “Shall we see if Buffy’s still talking…?” She is. “She’s not done. Even Willow looks bored…”
Andrew: [filming the room where Willow and Kennedy are passionately kissing on the sofa] “Hey, here's something I think you're going to be interested in, gentle viewers…” [Zooms in on the window behind the sofa] “Look at the fine work Xander did on replacing that window sash. You can’t even tell it’s new, it blends in so well. He’s extraordinary.”
Verdict: A truly great episode that moves from M onty Python lunacy (Andrew imagining himself, and his former supervillain mates Jonathan and Warren skipping through Elysian Fields singing, “We are Gods! We are Gods!”) to tender, moving moments (Xander and Anya’s heart to heart, Andrew’s redemption) without a hint of a crunch in the gear change. It’s a concept episode that grows organically from the characters, and also pushes the arc plot onwards. A forgotten gem in the Buffyverse that remains as fresh and funny today as it did when it was first broadcast.
Episode: “And Now For a Word”
(Season 2, episode 15)
Best in-joke: In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the bridge of the Heyerdahl has a pine scented air freshener. Lovely.
Garibaldi: “What do I hope for? I hope to get through this interview without getting fired, how's that for a start?”
Verdict: The first of two documentary-style episodes covering the developments of the Narn-Centauri war (“The Illusion Of Truth”, season four, revisited things as the war progressed). One of the most polished mock documentaries in our list, this episode comes complete with opinion polls (breaking news: no-one likes Sheridan, and most people think the idea Babylon 5 is the last, best hope for peace is rubbish), interviews with crew members (Delenn in particular gets very upset at the disrespect she’s shown and does a walk out a stroppy Cabinet member would be proud of) and even faux commercials – the Psi-Corps one comes with a subliminal message flashing up at the end: The Psi-Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps. This is a great example of the mockumentary, and has all the details that you’d expect by something overseen by JMS himself. It also explained a lot of the socio-political background of the show in a way that meant it was a great way for newcomers to the show to catch up.
Episode: “Ghostfacers” *
(Season 3 episode 13)
* There are a few to choose from, so we’ve picked this one as representative
Best in-joke: In their introduction to the Ghostfacers pilot, Zeddmore and Spengler appeal directly to the network executives, commiserating on how hard they had things during the writers’ strike, bemoaning the “lazy fat cat” scribes and pointing out how actually reality TV was way better and scarier anyway. This was actually the first episode of the show filmed after the Writers’ Guild of America strike ended. Also in true reality TV style both Sam and Dean use unusually strong swearwords – which are bleeped out, complete with a little Ghostfacers ’ logo put over their mouths to deter lipreaders.
Harry: “ Don’t be a Facer hater.”
Verdict: There’s much to love about the Buffy and Ghostbuster -loving geeks intent on filming their own Blair Witch -style documentary – and not just because they dismiss the boys as “those assholes from Texas”. Pleasingly, this is undoubtedly the most successful of all our mockumentaries, and as well as giving us a welcome break from the ongoing storyline of Dean-angst, this much-loved episode spawned a ten-episode web series of its own. Brilliant.
(Season 10, episode six)
Premise: Okay, bear with us on this one; it’s complicated. For episode 100, SG-1 celebrated with the gloriously self-referential Wormhole Extreme! , an episode about a fictional TV show that bore a strange resemblance to Stargate SG-1 . It didn’t quite break the fourth wall, but certain gave it a few knocks. However, 100 episodes later, and Stargate was driving a wrecking ball through the fourth wall. We find out Wormhole X-Treme! ran for just three episodes prior to cancellation, but did so well on DVD that Lloyd is now writing a TV film.
“200” then becomes a feast of exquisite silliness, with hilarious homages to Team America: World Police , Farscape , Ewoks and The Wizard Of Oz , among others. But what concerns us here are the final four minutes: a series of interviews with “stars” of Wormhole Extreme! that descends into extreme sweariness.
Best in-joke: Basically, the whole sequence is one long in-joke, with TV SF in general and Stargate in particular as its target. The producer spouts all the usual clichés (“What I really think makes this show what it is, is the chemistry with the cast”) while his actors bitch about each other (“a lot of people said he phoned it in, that last season”); the lead actress complains how all the writers are men; and the action hero explains in-depth the painstaking process he went through to choose a catchphrase (“It’s what I do”).
Raymond Gunne [the Michael Shanks-alike]: “It was acting… you know. Acting without people hurling papier mache boulders as you all f**king day.”
Verdict: It’s either a brilliant example of how the cast and crew of Stargate can laugh at themselves, or the most extreme example of “many a true word is said in jest”. Either way, it's great fun, and then ends with a geek-life-affirming quote from Asimov about the value of science fiction. Nice touch.
(Season 7, episode 12)
Premise: Mulder and Scully get caught up in the taping of the then hugely-popular reality TV show COPS while on an investigation about a monster terrorising an LA suburb. Their entire investigation gets put before the cameras, with Scully horrified at the intrusion while Mulder, typically, gets giddy at the prospect of proving to a national TV audience of millions that the truth really is out there.
Best in-joke: Getting a terrified woman to describe the suspected werewolf prowling the neighbourhood to a police sketch artist, Mulder is slightly perplexed when it turns out she’s describing... Freddy Krueger!
Scully: “Mulder, this could ruin your career.”
Mulder: “What career? Scully I appreciate it that you don’t want me looking foolish, I do. I appreciate that. ”
Scully: “I don’t want me looking foolish, Mulder.”
Verdict: Whether you see this as a brilliantly post-modern merging of fact and fiction or shameless cross-promotion of two of the Fox Network’s biggest TV shows, there’s lots of nods to the real COPS show in this episode – from the hand-held video shooting style to the credits (and famed “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when they come for you” theme) replacing the usual spooky Mark Snow theme. And who better to pair our favourite FBI agents with – all that running through shadows with only a rubbish torch for illumination is very dramatic for reality telly.
(Season 8, episode 15)
Best in-joke: Not an in-joke exactly, but the scene where Clark tells Lois about his powers is achingly similar to the interview between the pair in Superman: The Movie . Welling even has a cow lick in his hair in true Christopher Reeve fashion.
Clark: “ My father sent me here with a dying wish that I use my abilities to protect mankind. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Verdict: It’s not as much of a pure mockumentary as some of the other items on this list, but there’s enough here to make it fun – even if Lois learning and then forgetting Clark’s Super-side (again) is teeth gnashingly irritating. Again.
Episode: “Final Cut”
(Season two, episode eight)
Premise: In light of the fleet's growing anger at the military, journalist (and, it turns out, cylon) D’Anna Biers is given unrestricted access to film a piece about life aboard Galactica, and in doing so uncovers a plot against Tigh and discovers Sharon is pregnant and being held secretly aboard the ship, although Adama forbids her to report on it.
Best in-joke: This is Battlestar Galactica – there’s no time for jokes here! This is serious stuff.
D'Anna Biers: “I came to Galactica to tell a story. In all honesty I thought I knew what that story was before I ever set foot there: how an arrogant military let their egos get in the way of doing their jobs, safeguarding the lives of the civilian population. But I found out that the truth was more complex than that. These people aren’t Cylons. They’re not robots blindly following orders and polishing their boots. They’re people. Deeply flawed, yes, but deeply human too, and maybe that’s saying the same thing. What struck me most is that despite it all – the hardships, the stress, the ever-present danger of being killed – despite all that, they never give up. They never lie down in the road and let the truck run them over. They wake up in the morning, put on their uniforms and do their jobs. Every day. No pay, no rest, no hope of ever laying down the burden or letting someone else do the job.”
Verdict: When Galactica goes mockumental you can’t expect a barrel of laughs, but nonetheless this is arguably one of the best episodes of the reimagined show, which fleshes out some of the secondary characters – including Dualla, Gaeta and Racetrack, whose names and backgrounds we learn about for the first time – as well as introducing a new cylon to the pack (the fantastic Lucy Lawless, who as D’Anna uses her genuine accent for the first time on TV).
Episode: “Love and Monsters”
(New Who, series two, episode two)
Premise: We’re watching a video diary of Elton Pope, describing his encounters with the Doctor, punctuated with flashbacks to what he’s describing. He joins forces with several other people who’ve interacted with the Doctor, all aiming at trying to uncover the truth of him and his mysterious blue box as part of LINDA - London Investigation ’n’ Detective Agency.
Best in-joke: LINDA is an acronym that has appeared elsewhere - as the Liverpool Investigation ’n’ Detective Agency, in kids’ TV show Why Don’t You? , which Russell T Davies worked on early in his career.
Elton [holding LINDA member Ursula, who has been turned into a paving slab, it makes sense, honest]: “It’s a relationship, of sorts. But we manage. We’ve even got a bit of a love life...”
Ursula: “Oh, let’s not get into that.”
Verdict: A Doctor-light episode, this wasn’t the instant classic of, say, “Blink”. As a example of the mokumentary genre, it’s great, using the video diary format with wit and ingenuity (and a huge dollop of ELO… wonder if Elton was ever going to ask for copyright permission?). Marc Warren and Peter Kay are high profile guest stars, with the latter playing an alien, the Abzorbaloff, designed as the result of a Blue Peter competition. The episode garnered mixed reviews with complaints ranging from Kay’s overacting and the silly Slitheen-esque monster to annoyance at how, well, lame the members of LINDA are. That said, on rewatch it’s not too bad – Marc Warren does well with what he’s given, and for the surreal ending for Elton and Ursula if nothing else it’s memorable, even if perhaps you’d rather it wasn’t.
Premise: Shown on BBC1 on Halloween in 1992, Ghostwatch is the stuff of legend – presented as “live” television the 90-minute special purported to show BBC reporters performing an investigation into a house in Northolt, London where a poltergeist – Pipes – was suspected of terrorising a family. It included interviews with neighbours, a background “investigation” of the history of the house and reporters on the scene (including Red Dwarf 's Craig Charles) as well as a team back in the studio dealing with viewers calling in on a special phone number with any spooky goings on in their area.
Best in-joke: Not an in-joke, but the phone number viewers could call was 081 811 8181, known to a generation of kids as the standard Saturday morning Going Live TV show number. Anyone who called heard a message reassuring them the show was fictional – although the Beeb was besieged with calls which meant thousands of people got an engaged tone which just added to the terror.
Michael Parkinson: “We’ve got some lights in the studio... I don’t know... There’s cameras but I don’t know which one’s working, I mean there are no cameramen! It’s difficult to know if anybody’s still... still with us, but it they are this is the scene in this studio... This totally deserted studio. Autocue’s still working! Round and round the garden... like a teddy bear?! Fee... fie... fo... fum.”
Verdict: Utterly terrifying, utterly brilliant, and showing kids’ TV favourite Sarah Greene “killed” by the ghost before it escaped into the BBC transmitter network, possessing Michael Parkinson and then manifesting poltergeist activity throughout the country, this is arguably the most effective mockumentary seen in British telly and, perhaps because of the controversy (which included children allegedly suffering from post traumatic stress) has never been shown again, although it’s available on DVD. Great stuff.
The War Game
Premise: A bleak 1965 television drama documentary depicting the preparations for and the after effects of nuclear war on Britain. Written, directed, and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play anthology series, the BBC deemed that it was “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”, so it was never shown on TV until 1985. It did, however, have some film distribution, and won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1966.
Stylistically, it is uncompromising, never straying from it documentary approach to artificially create a story. It’s a mix of f aux newsreel, talking heads interviews, vox pops, reportage and explanatory graphics.
Best in-joke: Well, nuclear was is not exactly joke fodder, but The War Game has a nice line in low key irony; juxtaposing po-faced old ladies claiming that there’ll never be a war, with images of people dying. The ultimate irony is that the po-faced old ladies were right… so far!
Deadpan voiceover: “At this distance, the heatwave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball, third degree burning of skin, and ignition of furniture.”
Verdict: Utterly, utterly chilling. God knows how it would have come across in the 1960s, but watched today, it is so convincing that it looks like a piece of genuine history rather than a play. It’s all so matter of fact, so deadpan, so BBC, you have to keep reminding yourself that Russia didn’t lob a few nuclear missiles our way back in the ’60s. It’s also totally gripping. There may not be a conventional narrative but it keeps your attention throughout its 46 minute running time.
The BBC tried to pull off the trick again in the 1984 with Threads , another part-mockumentary about a nuclear attack on Britain – Sheffield this time. But it was more of a standard narrative play with documentary elements and news narration provided by BBC journalist Paul Vaughan. It was a cultural phenomenon at the time – surely one of the greatest pieces of water-cooler TV ever – but judged in retrospect, it can’t hold a candle to The War Game .
So what have we missed? Which post-modern classics of the genre deserve mention in our list? Have your say in the comments below...