Talk of the Nation (NPR)

9 March 2004
 

Analysis: Cult television series

Bruce Campbell Interview


Host: NEAL CONAN
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Lots of TV programs are popular, but there's an interesting distinction between cop dramas and sitcoms and shows that see television as `the final frontier.' "Star Trek," "X-Files," "Xena," "Buffy"; these are the programs that run people's lives. Their continuing plot lines explore strange new worlds and seek out new devotion from hard-core fans to go boldly beyond the series as no one has before. Their loyal fans not only watch every week, but discuss, debate and even dress up. Collectively, it is called cult television. These are stories that hold the attention of millions for years, even decades. So what is the attraction? Why do otherwise sensible adults immerse themselves so deeply in imaginary worlds?

Later in the program, we'll look at another medium with a growing fan base: Internet animation sites. But first, cult television. We'll look into the whys, hows and whos of the shows that make it off the small screen and into the subculture. Our guests include Joss Whedon, the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other series, and genre TV star Bruce Campbell. And we want to hear from you. If you're a fan of one or more of these programs, why are they so important to you and what makes for a good one? If you're mystified, what are your questions? What do you want to know? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Or e-mail us: totn@npr.org.

And joining us now is Roberta Pearson. She's the editor of a new book, "Cult Television," a reader in media and cultural studies at Cardiff University, and she joins us now from there in Wales.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ROBERTA PEARSON (Cardiff University, Wales): Well, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's start with an argument we've been having here.

Ms. PEARSON: Hello?

CONAN: Excuse me.

Ms. PEARSON: Oh.

CONAN: Just a cough there.

Ms. PEARSON: OK.

CONAN: Why is "Star Trek" a cult show and not, say, "The Simpsons"?

Ms. PEARSON: That's a very good question. In fact, it's something that we do try to address in the introduction to the book. I think you did put your finger on it when you talked about the intensity of devotion and the imaginary worlds that are created. And one of the often-cited markers of cult television is people's desire to extend the imaginary universes that they're inhabiting through their own writing of fan fiction. And while many programs do, in fact, elicit fan fiction--I'm not quite sure if "The Simpsons" does, but certainly "Star Trek" does that, and it also, as you've said, causes people to, oh, have role-playing games, to go to conventions, to really try to continue that experience that they get on the screen.

CONAN: So it's not simply, you know, generating a lot of catchphrases like, you know, `D'oh!' or `Yada, yada, yada.' It's a lot more than that.

Ms. PEARSON: Well, I think, certainly, there is. I mean, there's a phrase that's used--sort of a good soundbite for journalists, the Roddenberry vision that harkens back to Gene Roddenberry...

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. PEARSON: ...who was the creator, as it were. That sounds a bit SF in and of itself, doesn't it?

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

Ms. PEARSON: But I mean, what he managed to do with "Star Trek" was to create a universe that offered hope for people, and he managed also to create a fully realized universe, a universe where there were various alien cultures, where there were protocols of Starfleet, a universe that could be fully inhabited by people, I think, and that, at the same time, offered one of the very few hopeful visions of the future from the genre of science fiction. And I think that's very important, and I think different cult television programs do that in different ways. For example, "Buffy" appeals, certainly, to young people because it's very much--it's about the traumas of being a teen-ager. It's about growing up. And so what these supposed cult shows do is, in fact, connect in very real and direct ways with the circumstances of people's lives.

CONAN: It's interesting. You called Gene Roddenberry the creator and argue that, though there were precursors, in a lot of ways, "Star Trek" was the originator of cult television, but that it came really in what you call `TV one(ph),' and that you have to be careful about how--the mechanisms by which these programs are distributed is extremely important.

Ms. PEARSON: Oh, absolutely, yes. I mean, if I can put in a plug for the future, the next book out's going to be about "Star Trek" alone and will very much address that issue, that, in fact, the existence of cult television has to do with a major transformation of the American television industry, that the original "Star Trek" was infamously canceled just a few days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and that was because at that point, the networks were simply interested in numbers with regard to ratings, and "Star Trek" had always been fairly lowly rated even though there were write-in campaigns from the fans to save the show.

In the 1970s, and increasingly in the '80s, there was the notion of niche marketing, where demographics became much more important, and so it became more important to have the key demographic audiences--say, the 18- to 49-year-old males, the people with the disposable income. And it's those people that the cult television shows are particularly going after. It also has to do, as you suggest, with some other transformations about technology that, if you have VCRs and, increasingly, DVDs, it permits you to collect these shows, to watch them repeatedly, which are very much part of being a cult television fan.

I think it's also important to say, though, that there's a great deal of emphasis upon the cult TV fan, and there's certainly a great deal of caricature and even ridicule of the Trekkie...

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. PEARSON: ...and various other people. But there are a lot of other people who are general audience people who are--millions and millions of people actually watch these shows, and they're not all what would be seen as the hard-core fan. And in some ways, I think too much attention has been paid to the hard-core fan, and that's, in fact, one of the things we're trying to correct a bit in this book.

CONAN: One of the things, though, about "Star Trek" that I think everybody remembers--after it was canceled, it went on to live in reruns forever and ever and, of course, on and on, and will, probably, forever after. And so that enabled people to try to figure out that, `Look, you can make a program that costs a lot of money to make because of all the special effects and all of that and make the money in reruns.'

Ms. PEARSON: Yeah. Indeed, that's the case. I mean, the economics of the television industry is that the costs that are paid to the producer in no way cover the costs of making the show. And so it's in syndication that you make your money, and that's why television shows have to run for--it's varied over the years, but you have to run for four or five years in order to build up enough episodes to be syndicated, and that's absolutely crucial. With "Star Trek," it's become seven years. "Buffy" ran for seven years, although I think "Xena" was on for fewer than that. But syndication's tremendously important, yeah.

CONAN: Let's have some listeners join the conversation. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's go to John, and John's with us from Denver, Colorado.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JOHN: I just wanted to say that I owned my geekness long ago by liking shows like "The Twilight Zone," "Star Trek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I'm 33, so I'm in that total demographic. But I have to just raise one point. I disagree that these are absolutely fantasy shows. They tend to be better written than most shows, and they tend to be very heavily symbolic and representative of our natural world. But I just wanted to make that comment, and I'll take the answer off the air.

CONAN: Roberta Pearson.

Ms. PEARSON: Oh, I'm in absolute agreement. That's what I'm talking about. That's exactly what I'm saying, that these shows are tremendously serious. And, in fact, because they're perceived as fantasy, as cult, they're allowed a certain latitude, I think, that I must say is often not allowed within the American media in particular. There's a wonderful episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" which deals in kind of metaphoric fashion with health care and is actually a very incisive critique of the lack of a health-care system in the United States, and that's fairly typical for cult television shows. I mean, "Star Trek," I suppose, in particular, has this reputation for being, in a way, liberal, progressive and doing a few message shows. But certainly, they're extraordinarily serious. They provide a realm for the discussion of the social, the philosophical in ways that other television shows don't, in fact. Yeah.

CONAN: One other characteristic that you write about is that, while in an individual episode there can be, you know, a plot device and a resolution of that device, there is also the ongoing mission, if you will.

Ms. PEARSON: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: There is--complicating factors that extend over a whole season and, indeed, over years.

Ms. PEARSON: Well, indeed. I mean, the hallmark of television generally, particularly in the United States, is seriality. It's one episode following another, but development of characters, development of plot lines. "Hill Street Blues," famously, is the instigator of this in the early '80s, and that's tied up with these demographic shifts I talked about.

But what cult television can do which those shows can't do is to create a universe in which some of the reality factors don't actually govern. So on "ER," Doug and Carol can have a long relationship and it can be on again and it can be off again, and we can wonder about where it's going, but it can't `unhappen.' They can't not have had a relationship. Whereas on "Buffy," it's possible to imagine that Buffy is actually a poor mentally disturbed girl sitting in an asylum who's not actually the slayer. And this is a way of--you can create alternative pasts, you can create alternative futures, you can create alternative presents, you can test the characters in ways that more reality-based television can't do, and that's a particular characteristic of cult telly, yeah.

CONAN: With us now from his home in Southern California is the creative force behind the cult series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff "Angel," the man who married teen angst to the monster movie and dared to put a Western in space. Joss Whedon joins us.

And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOSS WHEDON (Creator, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: "Buffy," of course, was a movie before it was a TV show, but did you consciously set out to create something that might be interpreted as a cult?

Mr. WHEDON: Yeah, I would say I did. Not a cult in the sense of being exclusionary, just a cult in the sense of the kind of show that people respond to more viscerally and imaginatively than they do to just their everyday sort of decent fare.

CONAN: We should point out one of the great things about both those programs, "Buffy" and its spinoff, "Angel," is the voice, if you will, of the whole show, the balance of humor with intense drama. We have a clip from a scene in "Angel," in which the main character, a consciousness-haunted vampire, mentally prepares himself for battle.

(Soundbite of "Angel")

Mr. DAVID BOREANAZ: (As Angel) I'm not ready yet. Too many years spent sleeping in soft beds, living in a world where I don't belong. And I can't fight that, not yet. But soon.

CONAN: Dramatic, heavy stuff, Joss Whedon, but the shows also carry a lot of laugh lines. How do you find the balance?

Mr. WHEDON: You know, you find it in yourself. You know, you respond--I think, you know, most writers write like fans. And when you start getting tired of the turgid, you make a joke. And when you feel like, you know, the stakes aren't high enough, you try for the heart. You know, you find the balance just in your own conversations, and you definitely see it--too much of one thing on the show, it makes you want to go in the other direction. And it was--it started out as a mission statement, you know, `Let's have all these things happen at once because they do happen at once,' and horror makes jokes funnier, you know. I mean, if you put something in the context of `I'm expecting a joke'...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WHEDON: ...it puts more of an onus on the joke than if you put something in the context of drama.

So from the start, this is what we wanted to do, but we found, you know, that it was basically easy to balance because we wanted to--you know, we found the rhythms in ourselves.

CONAN: What were the models, obviously, beyond the vampire, you know, works?

Mr. WHEDON: The models? You know, I think I heard "Hill Street Blues" mentioned. "Wiseguy" was a very big model because of the villain arc concept. Not knowing if I was going to get to make more than the 12 episodes we were originally picked up for, you know, I sort of completed the villain's arc and I knew coming into season two I didn't want the same guy to rise again and constantly be going, `This time, I'm really going to defeat Buffy. I mean it this--no, I'm not messing with you. This time it's gonna work!' And so, you know, I wanted to create a new bunch, and that was Spike and Drusilla, and then that sort of became the paradigm. Every year, you know, we found a new arc and a new basic message.

CONAN: Do I hear in the background a couple of slayers in training there?

Mr. WHEDON: What you hear in the background is my one-year-old son, who I am taking care of today. Yeah.

CONAN: Well, we'll ask him to not destroy anything vital for the next few minutes, and we're going to take a short break and return with more of your questions and phone calls. Our number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. We're speaking with Joss Whedon, the creator of, among other series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and Roberta Pearson, editor of a new book, "Cult Television."

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about why some television shows develop cult audiences and the power these programs have for both their fans and their creators. You're invited to join us: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Or e-mail us: totn@npr.org. Our guest is Roberta Pearson, editor of the new book "Cult Television." She joins us this hour from Cardiff in the United Kingdom. And still with us from Southern California is Joss Whedon, creator of several cult series, including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel."

And, Joss, we have an e-mail question for you...

Mr. WHEDON: Uh-huh.

CONAN: ...from Eleanor in Portland, Oregon: `Why do networks continue to develop cult TV shows when it so often seems like they don't appreciate the audiences that these shows draw, they aren't happy with the ratings and don't let the shows fully develop?'

Mr. WHEDON: Wow, that's a good question, and I've been asking myself that a lot over the last few months. I think, you know, that they know there's a core audience there that will respond in a way that they won't to other shows. The biggest movies, hit movies, have all been fantasy movies. They know there's a market there, and when it works, when it really hits, it contains a lot of ancillary markets like, you know, not a lot of people playing with their practice dolls, you know: `Point of order.' `No, I object.'

CONAN: Is there a "Law & Order" comic book?

Mr. WHEDON: I don't think so.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. WHEDON: At least, I haven't read it. It'd be pretty exciting. And...

CONAN: There is a "C.S.I." comic book, though.

Mr. WHEDON: There is a "C.S.I." comic book.

CONAN: There is.

Mr. WHEDON: They're trying to sort of push into that market. But I think that's what they're looking for. And, you know, if they don't get the numbers they seek--I mean, there are plenty of dramas that fall by the wayside every year, too.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WHEDON: There's everything, you know. They'll throw everything at the screen, because they don't actually know what they want.

CONAN: Yeah. Roberta Pearson, let me put that to you. We should point out that "Angel" has just been canceled.

Mr. PEARSON: I heard that. That's terrible!

CONAN: Are we in a--you know, is this a pendulum? Are we in a down period now, or is this a permanent decline, do you think?

Ms. PEARSON: Well, it's a little hard for me to tell, since I'm not as au courant with American television as I should be. I think what Joss had said about the networks trying everything is certainly the case. When I was in the States in January, I saw some clear "Buffy" rip-offs, including one that starred one of the "Buffy" stars, in fact. And clearly, the idea of a kind of magical, powerful girl was something that the networks had decided was going to work. The problem is that occasionally, something comes along and, as has often been said about "Star Trek," it's like catching lightning in a bottle. It's a combination of the moment, it's a combination of the creative personnel, it's the way they work together, it's the way an audience responds. And there is something almost mystical about that, in fact. It's something which we scholars have a hard time accounting for. In fact, if I could account for it, I wouldn't be a scholar; I'd be out in LA earning a lot of money.

So I think that most shows that get on--well, most shows don't get on air in the first place.

CONAN: Right.

Ms. PEARSON: Most shows that do get on air don't make it very far. And, as Joss says, the networks just keep throwing up things in the hope that they'll work. As to--yeah, I think there are certainly cycles. I think--I hate to say this, because I have friends at Paramount now, but I think "Star Trek" is kind of in decline after almost 40 years. It may come back. It would be interesting to see whether "Angel" and "Buffy" have that kind of staying power and whether in 40 years or so we'll all be sitting around talking about the Whedon vision.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tom, who's with us from Heidelberg in Germany.

Mr. TOM REESE (Caller): Hi. I'm Tom Reese(ph) in Heidelberg, Germany, like you said. And I know that these shows are popular over here--"Buffy" and, of course, "Star Trek"--and I know that there are Trekkies and stuff like that. I don't know--I've never met any people that are into the cult of "Buffy." But I was wondering if it's more Americans that are into the cult part of it and going to these conventions, or how popular it is in other countries. And also, a second part of the question is: Is it maybe because Americans are so mobile in almost every aspect of their lives that they need to latch onto a cult like a religion?

CONAN: Joss Whedon, is that something you've thought about?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, you know, "Buffy" is enormously popular in Europe. In England, it's a major thing. Actually, in Germany--the soundtrack to the musical sold as much in Germany as it did in the United States. There is something about American culture that spawns these things, but they seem to speak to, I would say, more than just Americans.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. WHEDON: I would say pretty much everybody, you know, if they're actually speaking at all. A lot of genre shows are just sort of going through the motions, and here's a magic trick and here's an alien and here's a fight. Obviously, "Star Trek" was, you know, the real precursor in terms of--like "The Twilight Zone," which I think also needs to be cited as a real influence of using science fiction to, you know, really give a message, to investigate something, to talk about social mores and stuff, which people need to examine, you know, in that fantastical way so they can really distance themself enough from it to get into it, whether it's a social or an emotional issue. So I just--I think that the need for fantasy is universal.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Chuck in Breisach, Germany--a lot of calls from Germany today.

Mr. WHEDON: All right. See?

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. This is Chuck.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Chuck.

CHUCK: Super. I have a question for Joss. I have become a fan of "Firefly" sort of way after the fact. I had moved to Germany before the show ever came on, and a friend of mine back in the States sent me a couple videotapes. And you're talking about "Star Trek" earlier as cult TV, and "Star Trek," of course, was canceled way before its time but sort of came back and flew again. My question for Joss is: Why do you think "Firefly" didn't fly? Is...

CONAN: And let me preface his answer by explaining, "Firefly" was the aforementioned Western in space, and a good thing you've only got a couple of tapes, because there were only a couple of episodes.

CHUCK: Well, actually, I bought the DVD set and we've got all of them, including the unaired ones.

CONAN: OK. Joss, go ahead.

Mr. WHEDON: First of all, you're a great man of our time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Second, you know, why it didn't succeed on the network, you know, would be subject to many interpretations. Amazingly enough, mine has entirely to do with the network and nothing to do with the show. They didn't really want it. They had no faith in it. They put it in their worst slot. They refused to air the pilot. They never aired more than three in a row. They didn't advertise it. When they did advertise it, they advertised it poorly. They did everything in their power to sort of give it the stench of failure, and then they canceled it before it ever had a chance to get its footing. So really, it was kind of untested.

CHUCK: The whole thing about running the pilot--What?--two episodes after the...

Mr. WHEDON: They aired it last.

CHUCK: Yeah. Well, it was really weird. I didn't quite understand that.

Mr. WHEDON: Well, what happened there, very simply, was a bad match. Fox wanted to be hit in the face repeatedly. That's kind of the way they make television, and some very good television. But you know, the pilot of "Firefly," "Serenity," kind of took its time. It had more sort of slow, laconic kind of build so you could get to know all the characters. That does not fly in the Fox universe, in their paradigm, at all. So they just couldn't understand it.

CONAN: We know we have to let you go, Joss, but I have one final question, and that involves your next project. As I understand it, you're going on to another pretty well-developed fantasy universe. You're writing for Marvel Comics.

Mr. WHEDON: Well, actually, I'm doing two things right now besides finishing "Angel." One of them is that I am actually filming the movie of "Firefly," called "Serenity." So, you know, like "Star Trek," that has found a new life, which is really exciting to me. And then, yes, I am taking over one of the X-Men titles from Marvel Comics for a year, simply because that's another huge influence on me and a childhood dream.

CONAN: Well, Joss Whedon, thanks very much. Good luck with both your projects and with the ongoing story of raising that one-year-old.

Mr. WHEDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Joss...

Mr. WHEDON: Hope you didn't hear too much about that.

CONAN: Joss Whedon is the creator of the cult series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." He joined us from his home in Southern California.

And let's get another question in, and this is an e-mail question: `I believe an integral reason a show can be classified as a cult phenomenon,' writes John Davis in Raleigh, North Carolina, `relates to its popularity. Shows like "The Simpsons" and "South Park" have too wide an appeal to be cult. For instance, when "South Park" first came out, it had the makings of becoming a cult phenomenon; it became too successful. But "Star Trek" and movies like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" have significant core fans but never had enough mass appeal, thus the cult status.'

What do you think, Roberta Pearson?

Ms. PEARSON: Well, I think that's slightly wrong. I think--I mean, it's a problem with the label `cult.' I heard Joss using the word `genre television,' which is really what the industry does, and that's actually, I think, what I would prefer to call it, even though the book has to be called "Cult Television" in order to sell.

CONAN: I see. We all have to make our compromises.

Ms. PEARSON: Well, yes, that's what--the marketers at any university press are very interested is in shifting books. So please buy it. It'll make the University of Minnesota very happy. But I think it's somewhat of a misnomer. I mean, what we try to do is to untangle some of the definitions of cult. And, in fact--one would have to look at comparative ratings, but "Star Trek: Next Generation" was getting ratings, oh, as high as about 14 or so, which is pretty significant.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PEARSON: That's a lot of millions of people watching it. And if you put that together all over the years, the millions of people that have watched "Star Trek," certainly it's not just the core base of devoted fans, and that was something I was actually addressing earlier. It certainly is that base that gets the media attention, obviously, but I do think it does go beyond that. And I think also, at least the way that we're using the word, is to talk also about textual characteristics, the kind of things that I was saying at the beginning about the scope of the universe, the imaginative nature of that universe. So it's not just to do with audiences.

CONAN: The cliche of the cult television star whose career becomes chained to one character is painfully evident in every William Shatner Priceline commercial.

Ms. PEARSON: Yes.

CONAN: For other stars, it's more about the genre than a specific character. Actor Bruce Campbell had a recurring role in the cult series "Xena: Warrior Princess," as well as starring in the series "Brisco County Jr." and in "Jack of All Trades." All three provided him with some pretty good one-liners.

(Soundbites of various television programs)

Mr. BRUCE CAMPBELL: (As Brisco) Don't you worry, little buddy. You're dealing with a man of honor. However, honor requires a higher percentage of the profits.

(As Brisco) Of all the sawmills in all the lumber towns, why did I have to walk into hers?

Ah, you know, there's nothing like the sweet smell of a domesticated woman. And I mean that in the most respectful way.

CONAN: Bruce Campbell joins us on the line now from southern Oregon.

Good of you to be with us today.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you. Pleasure to be here on this distinguished panel.

CONAN: You kind of get to ham it up in all of those parts. Is that some of the fun of working in a genre series?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, you know, I'm an actor, and everything's fake about it. So why not go for it? That's what I say.

CONAN: Now some of these programs had odd premises. "Brisco County Jr.," for example--I have to admit to here, one of my personal favorites--a Western, though, with some campy science fiction elements thrown in. Do you ever look at these projects and go, you know, `The audience is never going to go for this'?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I tell you, I was attracted to all three for exactly those reasons, that they were not mainstream shows. With "Brisco," it was a traditional Western combined with, as you mentioned, sci-fi elements. And that's sort of the good news and bad news. The good news is 18 people really loved that show. The bad news is it was quirky enough to never catch on. And so that's sort of the good news-bad news. "Hercules" and "Xena," they--I think those shows really caught on because it's not a cop show, it's not a lawyer show, it's not a doctor show. You go, `Whoa, who's this tall woman who's kicking these people's rear-ends?' you know. And I think with a little bit of a gay theme, that perked up some hackles and got a little bit of people talking about certain things. So that settled into its own--that's a good example of a cult show, is "Xena."

CONAN: I wonder, have you ever attended any of the "Xena"-"Hercules" conventions? And if you have, what's it like?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, I've been to dozens of them. I think they're fascinating. I like the grassroots sort of getting in there and seeing who's watching your show. But there are several actors who worked on "Xena" who went to one convention--they came over from New Zealand, went to one convention in Pasadena and it freaked them out so badly they never went to another one. Because it's people who--they know every episode, you know, they know a lot about you, at least what's been printed. They've got your photos, they've got 18 different kinds, they've got audition shots from 10 years ago, things you thought the negatives had been destroyed.

CONAN: And wish they had.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, it's disturbing and heartening at the same time.

CONAN: Do you ever worry, though, that, you know, at age 70, you're still going to be Autolycus to a lot of people?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It's hard to say. The good news is I've had--because I've been in cult movies as well--"The Evil Dead" films--in my line you'll have little kids dressed like a cowboy right next to a guy with spiked hair and piercings. So I've branched out within the cult world, but that's definitely where I operate.

CONAN: So you're not expecting any offers for Lear?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, no question at all, you know. But I have to say this is--it appeals to me, and yet that's the irony of it. The very thing that makes a small group of people so enthusiastic is the same thing that keeps it from actually running for years and years and years. Most good cult things are things that initially flop and then were either rediscovered or held on to tightly by a fervent group of people.

CONAN: Well, I'm among the 18, and "Brisco County Jr." will be back. Bruce Campbell, thanks very much.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bruce Campbell's television credits include "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." His most recent film was "Bubba Ho-tep." And he joined us form southern Oregon.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another listener on the line. David is with us from Portland, Oregon.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. I have a quick comment to make about the power of so-called genre television...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: ...to captivate the imagination of its viewers and inspire. I was a young boy of about eight or 10 when the original "Star Trek" first went into syndication. And thanks to that show, the fact that Spock and McCoy made science look cool and the entire show made technology very interesting and compelling, is what inspired me to interests in physics, in computer programming. And I've had a very good living as an adult, as a technology professional, inspired by the kinds of things that that show made me fall in love with.

CONAN: Roberta Pearson, we sometimes forget, as David reminds us, that these programs influence real people in real ways.

Ms. PEARSON: Oh, absolutely, yeah. In fact, a youngish friend of mine has just got a job at NASA where, I believe, half the population there are "Star Trek" fans, much like the chap who just phoned in. Certainly, yeah. I mean, it's had an amazing influence on me. I watched "Star Trek" in its first incarnation, and now I'm a fairly well-respected academic actually writing books about it, which is fairly, you know--I make a living doing this sort of thing, which is rather amazing.

But yeah, it has an amazing effect on people, I think. The people at NASA--Whoopi Goldberg tells a famous story, in fact, about how when she was young and watching the original series, she was proudly excited to see Nichelle Nichols playing Uhura and said, `Mommy, Mommy, there's a black woman on television and she's not playing a maid.' And then when "The Next Generation" came up, Whoopi Goldberg actually asked the producers of the show if she could come on it. She wanted to do that 'cause it had been so important to her in her life. Mae Jamison, who was the first black female astronaut actually did a cameo on "The Next Gen," as well. So there are an awful lot of people out there who have been inspired by shows--particularly by "Star Trek" because it's been on for so long, but people, yes, who--it has a life-transforming effect on people.

CONAN: David, thanks very much.

DAVID: Certainly.

CONAN: And before we leave, an e-mail from Tom Eaton that we got: `If we're talking about cult TV shows, let's not forget,' he writes, `what may be the first one. Patrick McGoohan's enigmatic series "The Prisoner"...'

Ms. PEARSON: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: `...aired in the summers 1968, '69, which still provokes discussion and comment 35 years later. To my mind, the most intelligent of all the so-called cult TV offerings, "The Prisoner" explored adult themes and the tangled anxieties of the Cold War,' filmed not too far from where you're speaking to us today, Roberta.

Ms. PEARSON: That's right, in Port Marion. And even though I don't work for the Welsh Tourist Board, I would advise everybody to visit. It's an absolutely lovely place, except I kept expecting the eyes of the statues to follow me, and they didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. PEARSON: OK. Nice talking to you.

CONAN: Roberta Pearson is the editor of "Cult Television," a reader in media and cultural studies at Cardiff University. She was with us from Cardiff University in Wales.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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