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Building New Bridges - Bâtir de nouveaux ponts

Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

18 – Television as Historical Source

Using Images in Cultural History

Caroline-Isabelle Caron

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1Let us reflect on the state of historiography in Canada and the usual reluctance of Canadian historians, whether English-or French-speaking, to use audio-visual sources in their research. Whereas they readily use all forms of textual sources, oral sources, and even some iconographic sources, historians shy away from film and television. They rarely refer to these productions for purposes other than as illustrative and teaching tools. Historians do not readily analyze audio-visual sources in Canada. They leave them to specialists of film and communication studies.

  • 1 My current research project focuses on commemorative feasts and celebrations in Nova Scotia’s Acad (...)

2In my research on Quebec cultural history I have purposefully looked at representations of the past, in the form of commemorations,1 and representations of the future, in the form of science fiction (Caron, 2003a; 2003b), to get a better sense, a closer glimpse if you will, of Quebec’s collective encyclopedia, in Umberto Eco’s sense of the word (Eco, 1995: 95-106). I use encyclopedia as the sum of the experiences and representations possessed by a person, and more generally, by a collectivity, which enables them to understand their world, and act and react to various experiences.

3When attempting to assess the Americanization of Quebec popular culture, a look at television and movies, where the place of American-made and made-for-American products is enormous, is self-evident. In the last third of the twentieth century, the place of such products in Quebec culture has become very large. However, without looking farther than statistics, one cannot fully understand the cultural affect of these products on Quebec culture. By looking at television schedules and movie returns only, by looking at the statistical position of these foreign products on the Quebec market, one can conclude as to their presence in the market, their proportion of the actual viewing public. We can conclude as to how much they are viewed. However, we cannot conclude as to their actual effect, their influence on Quebec culture. To understand, beyond statistics, how they were viewed, an analysis of how they have been understood historically is necessary. Just knowing how much American television Quebecers have been watching since 1953 is not enough (Atkinson, 1999).

4I want rather for us to reflect on audio-visual products phenomenologically, not only as cultural works that are produced and broadcast and that contain meanings to be decoded and analyzed. Rather, let us look at them as products that are actually viewed by an audience. These works contain cultural signs - visual, textual, oral, and narrative - which are heard, seen, and understood by real people. Identifying and contextualizing these signs enables us to better understand historically how they are understood. Further, identifying and contextualizing how these signs were later repeated and referred to in popular culture enables us to understand how they were appropriated by the broader culture. To understand the impact of American television on Quebec culture, one must look at how it was received.

  • 2 On methodologies for identifying television audiences and publics, see Proulx, 1998. For an exampl (...)

5The question of audience perception of a cultural product can be addressed in two ways. First directly, by asking questions to a chosen sample. This works well in sociological and communications research, when one is looking for immediate perception of cultural products, when one wants to identify how a product is understood right then.2 This is of little help when one is looking for the long-term influence of any given cultural product, i.e., for historical research. Rather, the second way of looking at audience perception is more useful for this purpose. One must look at audience perception indirectly, by looking at the re-appropriation of a cultural product.

6This allowed in my research for the understanding of how a product had been integrated into the common vocabulary of a culture. With American audio-visual products, the question of appropriation becomes interesting because one must take into account the mediation resulting from the dubbing of the shows. Because the dubbed products are not quite the same as the originals, the result of their acculturation should effect their place in the common culture.

7In my research, I have focused on one of the most historically known and influential, and most widely watched American television series ever: Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk. I looked at how TOS has been integrated in Quebec culture since its first showing in French in the Montreal-dubbed version entitled Patrouille du Cosmos in the early 1970s. I not only used the professional productions themselves (i.e., the series and the movies in both English and French), but also professional works of Quebec popular culture that refer to it (shows, series, movies), as well as amateur and semi-professional productions (such as fan fiction, fan movies, and shorts produced for the Kabarets KINO). I then expanded my research to other American-made and made-for-Americans series and movies to confirm my conclusions (Caron, 2004). For the purposes of this paper, however, I will focus only on Trek.

8After a careful analysis of the 79 episodes of TOS and Patrouille du Cosmos, my conclusions were startling. Comparing the English and French versions, I found fundamental and influential differences between what Americans had been watching and listening to and what Quebeckers had. Through dubbing, a different cultural product had been created. Stories had been reoriented, dialogues re-written, characters altered, jokes “re-funnied” and values shifted. In short, Quebeckers were not watching the same show as their American counterparts. They were watching a show that was uniquely Québécois, even though the original product was foreign. This dual nature of Patrouille du Cosmos gave it a paradoxical influence on Quebec culture (Caron 2003b: 247-8).

9In Patrouille du Cosmos, characterization is the result of several factors, only some of which are inherent to the original English version. The dubbing actors’ performances, their stage direction, French-language dubbing traditions, and the allusions made in the translated dialogues all alter the viewers’ ultimate perception of the characters and stories. Kirk in French is not the same as in English; neither are the other members of the Enterprise’s crew.

10One striking change is a consequence of the way the characters are played by the dubbing actors. In French-speaking countries, dubbing is done with the bande rythmo method in which the source text is divided into one-minute segments, shown to the dubbing actors on a screen at the top or bottom of which is a timing indicator and a scrolling band. On the band is the dubbed text, as well as indications for rhythm, tone, accentuation, and emphasis. As the text scrolls past the timing indicator, the actors know when exactly to pronounce which syllable and make which sound. The result is usually a very tight lipped synchrony. Often, however, the outcome will also be a flattening of the general tone of the acting performance, as the actors are never acting more than a minute of dialogue at a time. It can also lead to overacting. As a result, the dubbers’ acting performance is not always believable, or simply not very inspired, no matter how good the translated text (Pommier, 1988: 105-6). Most Patrouille du Cosmos episodes suffer from this kind of flattening.

11If that often means the acting is somewhat uninspired, it also results in an impression that the characters are stoic and unemotional. In Patrouille du Cosmos, Starfleet officers are not easily moved or excited by the situations around them. Kirk’s grandiloquent speeches are spoken in a poised and reflective tone. Spock’s original neutral, logical tone is sometimes nothing short of somber. Scotty’s exited commentaries are transformed into determined analyses and cynical retorts.

12The French dubbing tradition also significantly alters spoken dialogues because French-speaking audiences as a whole insist on linguistically and stylistically correct dialogue (Luyken, 1991: 138). This has significant consequences. In a large proportion of French-language-dubbed audiovisual media, the level of the spoken language is quite high. The language used is what is known as Français international, a version of the language devoid of regional indicators, in which accent and phrases are neutral and standardized, so that the geographical origins of the speaker cannot be identified. There is also a social (class) component to International French as the speakers are assumed to be well educated.

13In Patrouille, characters speak International French. The result is that most audible regional indicators in the original dialogue are erased. There is no difference to be heard between characters that originally spoke with various British or American accents. The end result of all this is that the Enterprise’s crew speak in a manner that implies an extensive education, some degree of refinement, great psychological strength in the face of danger, and an underlying uniformity of social provenance, even if some accents remain.

14The ultimate effect of these dubbing changes is striking. Though French-speaking audiences watch William Shatner act in his (now famous) over-the-top way, they hear the poised vocal tone, intonations and careful enunciation of the recently deceased Yvon Thiboutot. The actor’s movements and facial expressions don’t always fit what is being said. In other words, Thiboutot’s acting does not match Shatner’s.

  • 3 For example, Mr. Sulu was renamed Mr. Kato in Japan because the original name was not Japanese des (...)

15Dubbing research has long since proven that dubbing is not only a simple translation, but also a means of cultural transposition (Leppihalme). The objective of dubbing is first to make a television show or a movie understandable to the target audience, by transposing it into the target audience’s language, but also into the target audience’s culture. Cultural referents not understandable by the target audience need to be replaced. In short, the point is to make the product feel natural to the target audience, often by hiding the foreignness of a foreign movie or television series. Dubbing is also a means of making a cultural product acceptable to the target audience. Sometimes that means altering characters, character names,3 values, or even entire storylines for the target audience not to be offended.

16My analysis of the Star Trek series and especially the movies clearly supports this assertion (Caron 2002). Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact were the first Trek movies that were dubbed in French both in France and in Quebec. Comparing the Paris and Montreal-made versions revealed just how culturally centered dubbed versions are. Dubbers replaced American cultural referents by French or Quebec ones in the movies. Dialogues were significantly altered (by the addition of jokes or profanity), character personalities and provenances were transformed, though differently in each country, but always different from the original American.

17The flip side of hiding the foreignness of a movie is that dubbing can be used as a nationalist tool (Danan, 1991; Plourde, 1999). In some countries, such as France, dubbing can be used to assert cultural supremacy over the original culture, especially if that culture is American.

18There are overt and less overt ways of doing this. The French dubbing tradition is notorious in its replacement of American cultural referents with European ones. Even in the case of Star Trek, where most of the cultural referents do not even exist in real life, those few referents that are identifiably American are nationalized. Starfleet ranks, loosely based on American Navy ranks, were replaced in the Paris-made versions with French Marine ranks (see Table 1). In the same vein, the characters use the French custom of addressing whoever is in command as “Commandant.” The Montreal-made version, on the other hand, favours lip-synchrony and the characters address each other with ranks loosely similar to the original English-language titles (see Table 1).

19Looking at the dubbed versions of the series and movies allowed me to determine how dubbing affected the original products and understand the nature of the changes. The next step was to look at how Star Trek has been appropriated into Quebec culture. If dubbing changed the very nature of the original American show, it is expected that the way the show has been understood in Quebec culture would be different.

20Through dubbing, Star Trek was made intelligible to Quebec viewers of Patrouille du Cosmos. Parts of Star Trek lore are not part of Quebec’s common culture the way they are in the U.S. Of course, Spock’s ears and Kirk’s active libido are known; they are part of Quebec’s collective encyclopedia because they were not changed by the dubbing process. So are many of the purely visual vocabularies of the show: the shape of a vessel with primary and secondary hulls, and warp nacelles, for example. Quebeckers know and are capable of using and recognizing these elements as references known to all. However, because of dubbing, purely textual and oral elements of Star Trek were not appropriated. There is no equivalent to “Beam me up!” However, Vulcans are referred to as “bourriques” (asses) in the show. That mental image has had lasting cultural affects. The filter of dubbing erased original linguistic markers from Star Trek but replaced some of them with linguistic markers unique to Patrouille du Cosmos. Only the visual referents and some (but not all) of the narrative structures remain in the dubbed version of the original.

Table 1: Starfleet Ranks in the American, French and Quebec versions of StarTrek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact


French Marines

Starfleet (Quebec)


Enseigne de vaisseau 2eclasse


Lieutenant, j.g.

Enseigne de vaisseau lèreclasse



Lieutenant de vaisseau



Capitaine de corvette

Lieutenant Commandeur


Capitaine de frégate



Capitaine de vaisseau


Source: Caroline-Isabelle Caron, “Moving Words, Hiding Nations: Cultural Transfers and Nationalism in the French-language Translations of Star Trek Motion Pictures.” Presented at the Populat Culture Association/American Culture Assiciation conference, Toronto, Ont., 2002

21The best way to know the cultural effect of these numerous changes is to look for actual references to Star Trek in Quebec popular culture and its cultural products. Focusing on text only would be counterproductive. However, by enlarging the search to all forms of media, and especially to film and television, the references become numerous. Audio-visual productions from Quebec amateurs and professionals from the movie shorts produced for the highly celebrated Kabarets KINO, to the plays, shows, and movies of Claude Meunier (such as La Petite Vie), to the extremely popular science fiction satire series, and now movie, Dans une galaxie près de chez vous, contain innumerable references to Trek. These references pop up in visuals, themes, narratives and dialogues, and are by no means obscure to audiences. They are understood. The recent and continued media frenzy around Dans une galaxie près de chez vous, is proof enough: journalists have repeated ad nauseam that the show spoofs Star Trek (Bérubé, 2004; Cauchon, 2004). Let us look at a fan movie first.

22In 1992, a group of audiovisual media and communications students at the Cégep de Jonquière (Qc) chose for their two-year project to write, produce, and shoot an original 28-minute episode of TOS. Entitled Le Juge, the episode was written by Daniel Lavoie (who plays Spock) and directed and produced by Éric Bernard (who plays McCoy). It features all of the main characters, as well as Klingons, a mysterious and beautiful female alien, and an omnipotent being standing in judgment of humanity. The episode is a mix of several familiar storylines and decors taken from various episodes of Star Trek. At first glance, Le Juge looks like an homage to TOS. Sets, costumes, camera movements, and angles have been very carefully and successfully reproduced. Original music and sound effects were also used. Visually, it is extremely close to TOS. However, this is misleading. In reality, Le Juge is an episode of Patrouille du Cosmos. Éric Bernard stated in an interview: “With a small budget and a lot of time, I was able to produce a 30-minute Star Trek episode in FRENCH. It looked cheezy and the effects are bad also... like the original series...” (Original emphasis, Faries, 2000: 1).

23The dialogues are very well written in irreproachable International French. They include all of the expected features of Trek, including an opening monologue. The actors, though all amateurs and not all talented, try their best to reproduce the characteristics of their respective characters. And there lies the paradox. They must emulate the physical acting styles and typical body movements of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, while imitating the vocal performances of Yvon Thiboutot, Régis Dubost and Michel Georges. The best actor in the group is Carl Poulin, who plays Kirk. An examination of his performance is very revealing. Poulin’s physical movements are pure Shatner. However, his poised vocal tone, his intonations, and his careful enunciation are strikingly reminiscent of Thiboutot. The result is similar to watching Patrouille du Cosmos.

24The performances are all a little off, not only because of their amateurism, but also mainly because fluctuating synchrony is an inherent feature of Patrouille du Cosmos. Clearly, Patrouille du Cosmos’ main characteristic is the result of the dubbing process; otherwise Bernard, Lavoie and the others would not have attempted to reproduce it so closely. They have assimilated these elements and presented them on the screen, both as fans and as members of the Quebec audience.

25 Le Juge’s familiar storyline and paradoxical acting prove that the effect Patrouille has had on its audience is more about form than about content. Patrouille is a common vocabulary that can be spoken and acted. It is a cultural allusion in and of itself. When reproduced in the visual and audible spirit of the original (i.e., “cheezy”), the result is undeniably a hybrid of two cultural worlds, and (more or less) unintentionally comedic. To understand the actual cultural impact of this paradoxical cultural product, let us look at the most popular science fiction show written and shot in Quebec today.

26From 1999 to 2001, the space adventure/slapstick comedy/satire Dans une galaxie près de chez vous was the only Quebec-made science fiction program on Quebec television. It targeted the early adolescent viewers of the youth cable network, but attracted a vast and diverse adult audience as well. On 9 April 2004, the movie Dans une galaxie près de chez vous was released and in a month grossed more than two million dollars, a feat rarely achieved by Quebec movies. During its three seasons and 65 episodes, as well as in the movie, Dans une galaxie presents the adventures of Capitaine Charles Patenaude and his crew aboard the Planetary Federation vessel Romano Fafard (from Earth’s number one power, Canada!) in the 2030s. The opening narration states their mission: to find a suitable planet to which the human population can escape Earth, now deprived of its ozone layer, and to go “là où la main de l’homme n’a jamais mis le pied (where man’s hand has never laid foot).”

27The series has all the expected characteristics of a spaceship show. It has an opening narration stating the ship’s mission. Many episodes have stereotypical storylines that refer back to classic American science fiction, from Star Trek (of course) to Star Wars and Forbidden Planet. The vessel Romano Fafard may look like it was made out of tin cans, but it also has all the features of a Starfleet ship, with primary and secondary hulls, and a warp nacelle. It has a multicultural and mixed crew, but of various intellectual capacity and dexterity, all of them prone to pie-in-the-face physical comedy, yet as idealistic and dedicated as the crew of the Enterprise. In short, this is not simply another Red Dwarf. Dans une galaxie is clearly spoofing dubbed classic science fiction. Mainly, however, it is spoofing Patrouille du Cosmos (not Star Trek) on several levels.

28Capitaine Charles Patenaude (played by Guy Jodoin) is a dashing officer, ready to run into danger to accomplish his mission. Patenaude expresses himself in poised, yet pathos-filled, long-winded speeches. His accent and vocabulary are perfect International French. He only breaks from this when he speaks in aside, where he uses Quebec dialect in order to emphasize a scene’s, gags. Patenaude mentions proverbs, poets and philosophers, though in ridiculous combinations. Physically, his movements are grand and theatrical. In short, he speaks and moves like a captain should; that is he moves and speaks like Kirk does in Patrouille du Cosmos. The major difference is that here the comedic effect is intentional and exaggerated.

29The audiovisual vocabulary of Patrouille appears in Dans une galaxie for the same reason (but for the opposite effect) than in Le Juge. In order to be a recognizable science-fiction spoof, Dans une galaxie must first be recognizable as a science-fiction show. It therefore contains recognizable elements of the best-known science-fiction show to have played on Quebec television. Because the audio and visual elements of Patrouille are not perfectly coherent, because the costumes and makeup (especially when seen today) are somewhat silly, the effect may be comedic. Using this, the writers and producers of Dans une galaxie près de chez vous built a comedy and a satire of the entire science-fiction genre.

30This aspect of Patrouille du Cosmos (and classic science-fiction television in general) is constantly used in Quebec television in order to produce a comedie effect. TOS references in Quebec television and movies are always used in order to produce a laugh. As a cultural allusion, Star Trek equals ridicule.

31The primary reason for this is that it is known as a dubbed product. Dubbed science-fiction television and movies, like all dubbed television and movies, are paradoxical cultural products. At once, they are foreign, yet not, because they sound familiar. Because of the vagaries and exigencies of dubbing, they also always look and sound-in short feel-a little off. A Quebec audience will be looking at foreigners (i.e., Americans) but listening to French or Québécois speakers; their true foreignness and alien-ness is linguistically hidden, but still visually present. Dubbed cultural products are inherently paradoxical, even more so when a Quebecer is watching, say, an American movie dubbed in France. Then, he hears Americans who speak like French persons, not Québécois, not like Us.

32It is no surprise, then, that Quebec audiences which have been fed a steady dose of dubbed American television and films, including science fiction, have appropriated it in a paradoxical way. It was inevitable. Viewers are constantly aware of dubbing, always aware of the hidden - or the not so well hidden - foreignness of the viewed products. As such, Quebec audiences have over time necessarily distanced themselves from dubbed cultural products as they were watching them. There is a constant awareness of the Other behind the dubbing. This Other has a dual form; it is both the disembodied voice of the dubber and the voiceless body of the original actor. At a very basic level, viewing dubbed cultural products leads to a very basic form of cultural criticism, hence the prevalence of comedy or children’s programming with scifi content in Quebec. When science fiction is always associated with foreign, dubbed and therefore unintentionally funny/inane programming, why would that not influence the genre as it is perceived in the target culture, in this case Quebec?

33At the end of this very long walk through my research, let us go back to historiography. Though this particular research focuses on recent enough phenomena that many historians would argue it is more sociological than a legitimate study of the past, I want to argue here that it illustrates the potential usefulness of using television and movies as primary sources for the study of Quebec cultural history. By using these media as more than illustrations, I was able to dive into the collective encyclopedia of Quebec. By looking farther than mere statistics about television and movies, I got a look at how American culture has truly influenced Quebec culture over the last thirty years. The conclusions are very comforting rather than grave, quite the contrary to what many cultural historians, sociologists and media specialists have stated in the last decade.

34In short, if I had not analyzed the substance of the American-made and made-for-American shows and movies viewed in Quebec and especially of how they were understood, integrated and appropriated into popular culture, I could not conclude that the Americanization of Quebec culture is not as grave a phenomenon as many have posited (Atkinson, 1999). Dubbing filters reorient American cultural products in very significant ways. It nationalizes them. As such, Quebec culture changes, adapts, and does become more North American, but no more than it becomes more Japanese by watching dubbed animé, whose presence on Quebec television is almost as old as Star Trek’s. There is a use for such an approach in history and in historiography. Aurore l’enfant martyre and similar movies could be an interesting look at the encyclopedia of the midcentury clerical class in Quebec, for instance.



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1 My current research project focuses on commemorative feasts and celebrations in Nova Scotia’s Acadian communities, with particular attention on local events and community organizations, between 1800 and 1960.

2 On methodologies for identifying television audiences and publics, see Proulx, 1998. For an example of a comparative reception study, in the case of Dallas, see Katz and Liebes, 1991. For Trek audiences, see Tulloch and Jenkins, 1995.

3 For example, Mr. Sulu was renamed Mr. Kato in Japan because the original name was not Japanese despite the purported origin of the character.


Is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University. She specializes on the cultural history of Francophones in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. She published on contemporary American cultural influences in Québec television. She also will be publishing in 2005 a book on commemorations and representations of ancestry in Acadie and Quebec entitled Se trouver des ancêtres. Un parcours généalogique nord-américain, 19e-20e siècles. She is currently working on a project looking into local commemorations and historical festivals in Acadian communities of Nova Scotia since 1880

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