Sincere apologies for the lengthy delay since the last post but real life will keep breaking through won’t it. Still now we can wrap up our trawl of librarians on TV
As you might expect after 40 years in libraries although the vast majority of people you meet are really excellent I have also come across some pretty unpleasant characters. There were the usual collection of obnoxious, loud, opinionated, entitled and objectionable users but you just had to get used to the fact that this was what professors were like and some of the students could be as bad but I am pretty sure that I have never come across anything in a library that is as quite so terrifyingly unpleasant as Vashta Nerada. No she isn’t a new age folk singer, you’re thinking of Vashti Bunyan, nor is it an unpleasant skin condition; no Vashta Narada appeared in an episode of the celebrated TV sci fi show Doctor Who, one of the few examples I have come across of libraries in science fiction on television. I should start though by saying that sci fi is not one of my favoured TV genres falling as it does in my watching pecking order someway behind Made in Chelsea which is a long way behind Homes Under the Hammer but just in front of any soap you care to mention and all of them well outside the top 50 of anything you will ever find me watching.
I was a big fan, though, of the early days of Doctor Who and followed all the Doctors for several years even as the stories became more implausible but by the time they felt the need to introduce the tedious K9, a sort of sci fi Lassie with antennae, I had begun to lose interest and the frequent appearance of the equally tiresome Brigadier finally put me off so I never did get round to giving the C21st revival a chance until I caught this episode in one of those bewildering instances of serendipity that happen every now and again. I don’t read much sci-fi as I said and watch even less so have no idea if libraries feature large in the genre but had always imagined not. The brief and unsuccessful attempt at using Jedi Archives in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones by Obi-Wan Kenobi was the only other example of which I was aware and seemed hardly worth a mention but a Doctor Who series on a library was too good to miss so it was a shame that I never really got to grips with what the hell the story was all about apart from the library but I’ll do my best to explain.
The Doctor is summoned to a 51st century library, the greatest in the universe containing every book ever published (don’t they all in sci-fi) which was a cue for cheap jokes about Jeffery Archer, and is the size of a planet but complete uninhabited. It transpires that the library has been empty and sealed for the past 100 years and the only message they receive as they enter is a recorded warning message from the Head Librarian warns them “Run…. And please switch off your mobile ‘phones” and the rather sinister “if you want to live, count the shadows”.
They soon become aware that there are life forms running the library, but not as we know them Doctor, that cast shadows without a body and you really should avoid them and their shadows as they are worse than any vindictive librarian; a fine of a few bob and a withering look is nothing compared to Vashta Nerada who have the appetite of a shoal of piranhas and prefer invading your space suit and eating you alive for even being in their library which they claim as their own because they say all the books are made from the wood of their native planet so it’s only right.
But as the Doctor and Donna try to understand what has happened to the library I was astonished not that the library was a sealed and deserted, it’s probably in a Tory controlled galactic authority but that we still have libraries at all by then. At the present rate of austerity driven vandalism we won’t even have any libraries in Leicestershire by the end of next year never mind in 30,000 years’ time. The plot runs over two episode and in the second we discover that not only does the library hold every book ever published but has saved lots of people too by absorbing their consciousness into the computer memory to save them from those evil little Vashta Nerada that are devouring everyone they can catch. In the end The Doctor does a deal with them and agrees they can have the library if they will allow everyone to leave unharmed. This is the most sense I could make of the story and have left out tricky details like the little girl back in the c21st inside whose head this seems to be happening, the psychologist who doesn’t help by telling her the nightmares about the library are real and anyway she may already be dead, a bunch of inter-galactic archaeologists including the mysterious River Song who knows the Doctor from the future but he hasn’t met her yet and Donna‘s children whom she hasn’t had yet.
You’ll have to watch it won’t you but you’ll understand why I usually give sci fi a wide berth. You can get away with any amount of counter-intuitive, counter-factual twaddle like that because unlike say historical fiction there are no inconveniently recorded facts to limit your fantasies. The same could be said of the continuing and frankly bewildering fascination of popular culture with the undead.
Who would think that one woman’s fight to save America from the undead would dominate our television screens but I want to go back to a more innocent period long before the current US Presidential election campaign to a previous incarnation of that battle. For a few years either side of the turn of the century one girl’s battle against the undead was one of the most watched TV shows around the world, mainly but not exclusively amongst young adults, a battle which rather surprisingly involved a librarian
Rupert Giles is the Librarian at Sunnydale High School in California and his corny English name is not the only unlikely thing about him. Rather than spend his time issuing books to truculent teenagers and keeping them in order when they are thrown out of the classroom for disruptive behaviour he spends his time watching and spending uncommonly long periods in the company of young people and in particular a very attractive blonde girl called Buffy Summers.
Not only that but he actually encourages and aids and abets her own violent behaviour. In the UK any middle aged man who spent that much time in the company of a an attractive high school student would soon have rabid mobs calling him unpleasant names and trying to burn his house down but in Planet US TV not only is this acceptable but is actively encouraged with a job title to go with it. Bearing in mind that Buffy is an attractive teenage schoolgirl and Giles is a middle aged librarian in a tweed suit in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Giles is called, without a hint of irony, Buffy’s Watcher. You see what I mean about a more innocent age.
Anyway for those of you have managed to miss all of this by being on a remote desert island with no means of communication with the outside world back then or maybe not having teenage daughters the central premise of the hugely successful TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that Sunnydale has a bit of a problem. It seems that the best efforts of the surveyors, developers and architects, local school boards and assorted local councillors had all missed the slight snag that the School has been built over the Hellmouth; a sort of demonic wrinkle in space time where the undead can slip into c21st California to wreak havoc and mayhem or worse . The only thing that stands in their way is young Buffy. Despite any ambitions she may have harboured to become a hairdresser, a derivatives trader or maybe run for President Buffy is stuck with the job of slaying vampires because apparently she comes from a long line of Slayers so it is fortunate for all sorts of sound marketing reasons that Buffy is an attractive blonde student.
Giles’s role is to watch after her, offering help and support as she goes about her mission of …well slaying. The support role does not require him to be involved in any actually hand to hand grappling with the un-dead he isn’t allowed by his bosses apparently, something to do with health and safety and anyway only Buffy has the right licence from whomever it is who dishes out slaying licences. No, whenever Buffy comes up against a new threat to Western civilization Giles has an encyclopaedic knowledge of creatures from the dark side and if he doesn’t know it he will have just the right, suitably old book to hand in his rather idiosyncratic library that he can share with Buffy, which sounds suspiciously like inviting her up to see his etchings but never mind.
Despite the obvious potential for a sub text involving the clearly unattached and surprisingly handsome Giles in a real or imagined relationship with the attractive and very sexy Buffy it never happens and one of the reasons it appears that there is no obvious chemistry between the handsome librarian and the sexy serial assassin is that Buffy clearly has the hots for dead people. Her two love interests in the series are the tragic and damaged Angel, a Good Vampire and after the screenwriters grow tired of him, in the final series, Buffy falls ludicrously for the vampire version of Lex Luthor who has been a running enemy of hers for the past several years; Spike the Bad Vampire! Quite how a story of a wholesome blonde West Coast school girl trying to get her rocks off with the forces of darkness survived in the home of evangelical Christianity is beyond me. But is no more unbelievable than the strikingly urbane and handsome Anthony Head being cast as the Librarian rather than someone short and fat like Bob Hoskins for example and for this I am sure all those librarians who moan about the librarian stereotype are eternally grateful.
To finish this thankfully brief trawl of librarians on TV a couple of lighter comic examples. Jerry Seinfeld produced a very entertaining take on libraries merging the crime of the late return of a library book with the hard boiled film noir cop trope. A Bogartish Library cop chasing late books is full of amusing nods in the direction of just about every tough cop cliché somehow made not entirely inappropriate to the most common library misdemeanour. “That little stamp that says New York Public Library may not mean lot to you but it means a hell of a lot to me”. Absolutely finally, though, something cosy and silly and a librarian with whom we can all sympathise. Our librarian straight out of librarian central casting, balding, bespectacled, suited, purple furry face.; well perhaps not the last bit is confronted with one of those annoying customers who just don’t seem to get it. Having explained that this is a library and asking for quiet the librarian enquires what he can do to help his blue furry customer. “I’d like a box of cookies please” and being told they don’t do cookies he thinks again and seeming to get the idea asks. “I would like a book on Little Red Riding Hood.” “Good we can do that” says the librarian only to be interrupted by the customer who adds “….and a box of cookies”. “Sorry” the librarian replies indulgently “perhaps you didn’t understand we only have books no cookies.” “Oh” replies the customer who thinks a second and then asks for a book on nursery rhymes…and a box of cookies. The librarian explains again, more firmly this time, that libraries don’t do cookies, just books. After several iterations as the librarians gets more and more agitated with the requests for cookies the librarian finally throws his toys out the pram shouting at the top of his voice “NO COOKIES, JUST BOOKS, NO COOKIES”.
Eventually the slow-on-the-uptake customer says “Now I get it. I would like a book on cookies…”, “Good” says the librarian to the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street adding as the librarian collapses“….and a glass of milk.”