Time for Teletubbies: Radical Utopian Fiction

The BBC children’s television programme Teletubbies is, evidently, based upon an SF conceit. But how meaningful is it to call it SF? Whilst conceding science-fictional elements to the show, most viewers, I suppose, would not think of it as belonging to the SF genre. And yet there is a point in making the identification.

The Teletubbies live in Teletubbyland, a sort of hi-tech hobbiton of green fields and hills, dotted with coloured flowers and grazing rabbits, under a bright blue sky. The four Teletubbies themselves live in a sunken dome, tended by technological gadgets of various sorts: a robotic vacuum-cleaner called ‘Nu-nu’ who cleans up all messes, food-producing and other machines, and periscopes that rise spontaneously from the turf to talk or sing to the Teletubbies.

The ’tubbies are differentiated from one another in various ways, and each has a favourite toy or prop. They are, in descending order of size: Tinky-Winky (who is purple, his antenna a triangle shape, his favourite ‘prop’ a handbag); Dipsy (lime green, his antenna a straight-up phallic thrust, his favourite prop an enormous black-and-white top hat); La-La (yellow, her antenna curled like a pig’s tail, her prop a ball); and Po, the littlest of them (red, his antenna a circle, his prop a scooter). The show’s conceit is that these curious space-alien-creatures represent toddlers at different stages of development, such that Tinky-Winky has the greatest (although still severely limited) linguistic capabilities, and Po talks in baby-talk. They are also differentiated in terms of character: they all have racially ‘white’ faces and hands, except for Dipsy who is racially ‘black’ (quite apart from his pimp hat, Dipsy adopts rather patronisingly stereotypical hip-hop dance postures). La-La likes to sing. Po likes to ride around on her scooter. All four of these beings have television screens inset into their bellies: which is, of course, the feature that gives the show its name.

Episodes are slow-paced and built around the principle of repetition. Each begins with a baby-faced sun rising over the landscape, and the Teletubbies bouncing out of the hole in the top of their dome. The four of them may dance, or have individual or group adventures. Various sorts of entertainment arrive, without warning or explanation, to divert the creatures: a miniature merry-go-round with a tap-dancing teddy bear may fly down from the sky; a house may appear from nowhere, in which a tiny Scotsman sings at each window in turn; a parade of animals may pass, two-by-two.

At the core of each show is the inclusion of documentary ‘real life’ footage of actual children. The ritual that accompanies this section of the show is always the same. A giant windmill tower on the horizon starts spinning, emitting some form of powerful sparkling energy. The Teletubbies all run out of the house to a nearby hilltop in a state of high excitement. They hug, and fall on the ground, and the energy beams stimulate each of their belly-inset television screens in turn, until one of the four (a different one each episode) receives the proper transmission. Then the other three gather round and watch the television show—as it might be, a group of children painting in a play-group, or living on a narrow-boat with their parents, or visiting a petting zoo. These short films contrast strongly with the toonish environment of Teletubbyland. When they finish, the Teletubbies almost always chorus ‘Again! Again!’ and the film is repeated.

The primary critical response to the programme is likely to be an instrumental one. What I mean by this is that, rather than watch an episode of the Teletubbies and think “this is SF”; we are more likely to think “this is TV aimed at preschool children, designed to provide them with distraction and entertainment with a mildly pedagogic flavour”. The predominant features of the show are evidently designed with this in mind: the bright colours, the repetitive storylines, the babyish antics of the ’tubbies: all have been configured to appeal to toddlers, to hold their attention. Because every feature of the show can be related to this instrumental reading (‘…it exists only to appeal to toddlers…’) such a reading gives the impression of being comprehensive, as if that is all there is to say about the matter.

But of course any such approach to a literary or cultural text will be reductive. It is as if we were to claim to be able wholly to account for contemporary cinema or Dickens’s novels by saying: “every feature about them exists only to appeal to the cinema-going public or nineteenth-century readers”. In a sense this may be true, but it does not provide a very full or satisfying account of the text.

It is worth remembering that the show is watched by adults as well as toddlers; not only accompanying parents (although I watched a wearying number of episodes over the first few years of my kids’ lives), but also adults without children: university students (notoriously) and general viewers. They, clearly, will not relate to the programme in the same way as a two-year-old. Perhaps some adults find the shows amiability reassuring, even soothing; perhaps some find its extraordinary surrealism amusing. But once we engage in an adult response, we must move towards exploring the programme’s underlying logic.

The premise is nowhere explicitly stated in the show, but can be deduced. Clearly, the Teletubbies are cyborgs. It is not just their technologically-assisted living that attests this, the numerous automated systems and machines that maintain their environment; it is the fact that they have viewing screens actually embedded in their torsos, and what appear to be organic TV antenna on their heads. We can of course ‘explain’ this feature of their existence by reading it as a commentary upon the tendency of toddlers to love watching television, and indeed to internalise its display (hence their ecstatic delight when the tall tower broadcasts images for their screens). Evidently the show is predicated upon such an observation. But this does not exhaust the text. Instead of automatically decoding the text in this manner, we can spend some time taking it at its surface.

If we contemplate the lives of the Teletubbies, questions start to pose themselves. These four creatures are evidently infantile beings, unable to look after themselves (hence their elaborate environment of technological attendants). We wonder: where are their parents? Have the Teletubbies been abandoned by their families? Are the ’tubbies alien creatures, or are they post-humans, genetically altered?

I prefer a different reading, one that folds the surface logic of the text back into the underlying logic of ‘entertainment for toddlers’. It seems clear from the world of the Teletubbies that, whether alien or posthuman, they come from a technologically advanced culture. Like the Borg they have assimilated technological devices into their own bodies, but unlike the wholly technological/artificial worlds of the Borg they have chosen to inhabit an environment shaped largely by the aesthetics of the natural world. We have, then, a disparity between (on the one hand) the high degree of intelligence and technological know-how needed to build the ’tubbies home, their automated toasters and vacuum-cleaners, the periscopes, the broadcasting tower and all that; and (on the other) the evident puerility and immaturity of the Teletubbies themselves. Rather that reading this in terms of parental abandonment, I suggest a reading more in keeping with the traditions of SF.

The Teletubbies, I’d suggest, are contemporary versions of Wells’s Eloi, those indolent foppish creatures from The Time Machine. Indeed, they are a more thoroughly-worked through rendering of the Eloi mode of life. Where Wells saw his Eloi as adults, still capable despite their degeneracy of adult pastimes (so that Wells’s time traveller is for instance able to have sex with the Eloi Weena), the Teletubbies inhabit a more self-consistent vision of complete degeneracy.

Let’s put it this way: imagine a culture that develops such sophisticated technical prostheses that its inhabitants no longer need to work, to worry, to strive in any way. Imagine those inhabitants, through choice or through evolutionary pressure, losing all stress-related functions of adult consciousness: work-ethic, conscience, guilt, lust, anger, avarice. Imagine them, in other words, regressing back wholly to a toddler’s existence, finding in that simplicity a maximum fit between existence and stress-free-satisfaction, like those German 40-something businessmen who like dressing in nappies and rolling around on the carpets of speciality brothels. Or, in fact, not like those men, because (unlike the Eloi) the Teletubbies have discarded the sex impulse as well, abandoning with it the dangerously fretful anxiety-gratification ratio of adult sexual life.

The machines in Teletubbyland, in other words, are the devices necessary to free mankind from its attachment to the adult world of necessity, provision and work. And once freed from those constraints, the show suggests, evolution or choice leads life back into the calm, bright satisfactions of toddlerdom. The Teletubbies are purer Eloi than the Eloi, a more complete rendering of the old SF convention about degeneration. Wells characterised his Eloi as child-like in some respect, but adult-like in others (physical appearance, sexual appetite). Huxley’s Brave New World also posited human global happiness upon an infantilisation of the human animal, although his future humans are also adult in appearance and physical appetite.

But neither writer explored the logic of their own premises as far as do the Teletubbies. Their utopian existence depends upon them being fully child-like, in all respects. That is the point. The programmes broadcast to the creatures’ inset televisions are, presumably, historical documentaries about the way life used to be, concentrating quite naturally on the infantile existence as the paradigm for the future utopia. The face in the sun becomes, I suppose, the manifestation of the central machine intelligence that regulates and maintains the world.

We might see it as a pretty nugatory paradise that did not involve sex, or other adult hedonisms. But this is to ignore Freud’s central insight: adult human pleasure must mediate id and superego; it has no choice about this. Gratification always entails anxiety, and for many people the relationship is linear, such that greater gratification involves, and even depends upon, greater anxiety. If we want a life free of stress, a fret-free angst-free life we must give up the superego, and with it our adult natures. We must become again as little children.

In other words, the toddler-oriented aspect of the show can be read not in clumsily production-intention terms (‘the show is designed to appeal to toddlers’), but as a commentary upon the necessary infantilisation implicit in any utopian fantasy. It poses a question: to achieve a total happiness for all on the planet, once technology has removed the practical barriers, how far along the road towards infantile consciousness will it be necessary to travel? Will we become like the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World? Or more infantile, like Wells’s Eloi? Or will we go the whole hog, and subsume our angst-ridden adult consciousnesses completely in the bright colours and satisfying repetitions of Teletubbyland? The enduring appeal of the Teletubbies to adults suggests, perhaps, this latter.