Time Travel on Television
(comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

We just finished watching "Texas Ranch House" (or as Mark calls it, "Prairie Dog House") on PBS, and I have concluded that there are some major underlying problems to the whole notion of putting modern people in historical living conditions.

For those who do not follow these shows, "Texas Ranch House" is the latest in a series that includes "1900 House", "1940s House", "Manor House", "Regency House Party", "Frontier House", and "Colonial House". The first four were done by the BBC; the last two and "Texas Ranch House" by PBS. In all of these, a group of people "travels back in time" to live in the conditions of that period. In the end they are rated by experts as to how well they adapted. However, as I will discuss later, they do not actually interact with people from that era, which is a major difference. Still, these shows are to some extent time-travel exercises.

One problem from the start is that although a 21st century person can put on 1900-style clothes, cook a 1900-style meal, and use 1900-style plumbing, they are still walking around with their 21st century brain. Now, from what some of the participants have said in interviews, they are told that the experiment is to have 21st century people try to live in a previous era--they are not expected to abandon all their 21st century beliefs and ideas. Assuming this is true, the problem is that the narration does not indicate this at all, but rather implies the opposite.

For example, in both "Frontier House" and "Texas Ranch House", the women are given clothing of the time to wear, which consists of about seven layers, including a corset. By the end of the shows, some of the women in both shows are running around in only a couple of layers. Their attire is perfectly acceptable by 21st century (Western) standards, but the narrator makes the point that they are appearing in public in their underwear, and the evaluators give them negative points for this.

In "Colonial House", the 1620 colony is set up as a religious colony, but one couple decides not to attend the Sunday services and goes skinny-dipping instead "to commune with Nature." Just what did the producers give as the rules regarding religious worship and the actual beliefs of the participants, versus what they imply on the show--namely, that these people are not living up to their agreement?

In other words, what the participants are told is allowed seems to be more permissive that what the viewers are told, which makes the participants look bad. (The viewers may not be told this explicitly, but it is certainly implied, especially when the narration tells the viewer, for example, that what the person has just done would be totally unacceptable in the time period they are recreating.)

(I have also read that the producers of the American series not only try to pick people who will create conflict, but also sometimes even encourage them to break the rules. It has been claimed, for example, that someone on the show's staff who suggested to the women in "Frontier House" that they sew hidden pockets into their skirts so that they could smuggle im cosmetics.)

In the American shows, there is always some interaction with Native Americans. But since the whole dynamic is different, it is no wonder that the participants cannot manage to barter successfully. First, the Indians are using a couple of hundred years’ experience to drive much harder bargains than they would have back then. They have no interest in what they would have accepted as trade goods in 1620, or 1867, or 1883. And the participants have their 21st century sensibilities that force them to treat the Indians fairly--not something the original settlers would necessarily have done.

Another problem is the question of how much training the people get. It seems to be less and less with each succeeding show, but in any case it is not a lifetime. No wonder the women in "Texas Ranch House" have problems maintaining a cooking fire, or the people in "Colonial House" do not know how that oysters are valuable. Two weeks of training cannot compare with having lived this way 24-7 since childhood. (If you want a science fictional parallel, read Poul Anderson's short story "The Man Who Came Early", available in a variety of anthologies and collections.)

Another problem--and perhaps the biggest one--is the issue of how much commitment the participants have to their "goal", either the big goal (e.g., making enough to repay the Company for one's passage) or a subsidiary goal (e.g., getting the cowboy back from the Indians). The original settlers would realize that if they did not earn enough on the cattle, they would lose the ranch, and may very well starve. This would encourage them to work as hard as possible. But since the only negative result for the programs' participants is a bad evaluation, they often decide to work a few hours in the morning, take a long siesta, and maybe do a few chores in the afternoon. And there would have been a sense of real menace in the dealings with Indians in Texas, which clearly was not present in "Texas Ranch House".

The original series was "1900 House" in which a family lives as a family would have in 1900, in a house retrofitted to 1900. That worked reasonably well, and I think that was because there was only one family, and they got the most preparation. Even there, the 21st century ideas practically did them in--not their ideas, but the producers' (and the British equivalent of OSHA's). The biggest error was putting the boiler further away from the stove than would have been the case in 1900, resulting in a full week before the family had hot water. Anyone from 1900 would have known how to fix this problem in less than a week, assuming it arose at all.

And while we are talking about problems introduced by the producers, the American shows all suffer from an anachronism that is usually attributed to the perceived left-wing bias of PBS: no one is allowed to have guns. In all three American time periods, guns would have been ubiquitous, and hunting a major part of providing the food for the settlers. But PBS would not allow guns, citing both hunting laws and the refusal of the insurance companies to allow them. (Given how angry some of the people were getting at each other in "Texas Ranch House", this may have been a wise idea!) The result is that everyone is always hungry throughout the project. Someone in an Internet discussion has suggested that there could be some sort of target range where participants could go and if they scored at a certain level, they could be given some amount of meat to take back. (Though it should be in the form of a whole animal that they still have to carry back and dress themselves.)

I am still somewhat interested in the notion of these shows, but I think the implementation is faulty—-and getting worse.

[This article appeared in the 06/30/06 issue of the MT VOID.]

					Evelyn C. Leeper
					Copyright 2006 Evelyn C. Leeper