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Entertainment is Education

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The media reaction to the Hollywood film, Argo -- depicting when Canadians in Iran provided a haven for American diplomats -- has subtly started to diverge in the American and the Canadian press. In the U.S., it's been about how many Oscars it's likely to win.

In Canada, the movie was initially embraced with blushing enthusiasm just for Hollywood acknowledging Canada existed -- like the geeky chick pleased the jock even knows her name. But subsequently there has been grumbling the movie doesn't acknowledge Canada's true contribution to the crisis.

Which serves as an appropriate segue into today's post:

You know what Canada needs? A really good time travel TV series.

Betcha didn't see that one coming, eh?

This thought recurred to me while listening to a Doctor Who science fiction audio adventure over at BBC Radio 4. An episode called "The Book of Kells" involves The Doctor in the 11th Century and a biblical manuscript which I only gradually realized was real -- indeed, is an Irish national treasure. And, sure, my life would be no poorer if I had gone to my grave never having heard of the book of Kells. Still -- I know of it now.

Pop culture IS culture. Sitcoms, action movies and paperback novels aren't the dregs that settle at the bottom of a nourishing glass of Booker Prize lit and Oscar-winning cinema -- rather, they form the beverage most of us imbibe most of the time.

That's why I take some exception to filmmakers who market movies as "based on a true story" and then, when it is pointed out they disregarded historical fact, defensively sneer: "Hey, it's only a movie." There's always room for artistic licence, of course -- nitpickers can get too obsessed with factual minutia. But storytellers have some responsibility because a lot of their audience is going to learn from their story. And this applies equally to things that are entirely fictional.

People cynically dismiss the impact pop culture has on our perception of the world -- which indicates just how powerfully subliminal that influence really is.

Consider: if you survey random Canadians about America, most'll give you reasonably good answers. From the battle of the Alamo to who was Elliot Ness, Canadians have a patchwork understanding of American history and culture.

But why? It's not taught in Canadian schools. We are not assigned to write 200 words about Herbert Hoover (who was either a president or a vacuum salesman -- hey, I said it was a patchwork understanding).

The answer? Entertainment. Storytellers regularly mine American history and serve it up as entertainment, from major plot lines to off-the-cuff quips. And I don't just mean serious dramatizations like Argo.

I know Benjamin Franklin ran a newspaper -- because I once read a Superman comic where Supes worked as a reporter for him. I also know portly Franklin had a reputation as a lady's man...'cause he tried to beat Doctor Strange's time with Doc's gal, Clea, in another comic (the blackguard!)

Silly? -- yeah. But it's also history (well, except the part about Clea, presumably) and I know it because it was incorporated into my entertainment.

A pet peeve of mine is the way Canadian entertainers either set their stories in the United States, or present a Canada where nothing too culturally specific appears that might frighten viewers into remembering Canada isn't a 51st State in the union. (Which I wrote about here and here -- making this post kind of the third of a trilogy).

Canadian filmmakers insist they have no greater responsibility to, or influence upon, the broader social culture. But I don't believe that's true. And if you are Canadian and can name the first president of the United States then you've just proved you don't believe that, either.

Pop culture does influence how we perceive the world.

And that's why Canada could use a good time travel TV series about a plucky hero who can bump into Jacques Cartier or Frederick Banting. Okay -- straight time travel series have often had a poor track record. But time travel is often incorporated into general fantasy and SF series. How many times did characters in various Star Trek series end up in earth's past (or a reasonable facsimile)?

Canadian TV has been involved in a number of SF and fantasy series, but many deliberately pretended they were American, while those that admit they are Canadian do so in a vague, squirming-in-their-seats sort of way. But if Star Trek's Captain Kirk could once take part in a re-enactment of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral couldn't the heroes of Primeval: The New World fall through a time warp and chase a dinosaur during the Winnipeg General Strike?

The TV series, The Murdoch Mysteries, goes some way toward that, chronicling the adventures of a Victorian-era Toronto detective. Although even then, Murdoch often meets internationally famous historical figures more than Canadian ones. Still, dollops of Canadiana get mixed into the brew from time to time.

It's a Catch 22. "People aren't interested in these things," argue the filmmakers, "so we can't write about them"...but surely people aren't interested because filmmakers don't bother to write about them. The historical significance of the O.K. Corral is just about nil -- yet it's known globally because years after the fact someone popularized it in a book!

If Canadians seem to know little about Canada and seem surprisingly well informed about America, who's responsible? Not the education system, which I don't recall spending an inordinate amount of time on Americana (whatever impression the sitcom Mr. D gives). No, the responsibility lies with Canadian storytellers, who often seem intent on teaching Canadians that the proper pronunciation of the letter zed is "zee" (according to Saving Hope), that Canada will have merged with the United States by 2077 CE (as it has in Continuum) and nothing of interest every occurred in Canadian history.

So until The Lost Girl's Bo meets Louis Riel, I guess I'll go back to time travelling with Doctor Who -- I think he's off to Colditz castle, or maybe it's the lost colony of Roanoke. I'll send ya a postcard