That title may be mildly misleading in terms of how exciting this post will be.
I was struck while watching the new Doctor Who spinoff Class by a scene in which a character’s texts are shown on screen when their phone is shattered.
This is a technique seen often in modern TV, popularised in Sherlock. Here the words of texts are displayed onscreen, but Holmes’ thought processes are also expounded in a similar way.
These techniques appear in a world in which quick visual storytelling is popular, where close ups on phones and interior monologue voice-overs are somewhat passé. It seems fitting then that they return to tricks seen originally in the silent era, another period of technological and dramatic innovation. Words appearing on screen were not limited to intertitles.Often they would appear over the image.
To specifically connect with the modern usage, this happened for two purposes.First was when a radio signal was being broadcast but on other occasions the technique was used to relay the thoughts of characters. As early as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari this madness of the Doctor is literally displayed when his thoughts appear around them.
Later this can be seen as Dr Mabuse hypnotises various characters in his titular 1922 film and later his instructions appear haunting a victim into committing suicide. Character’s thoughts haunt them as semi-physical manifestations are displayed as text in a very similar form to Sherlock.
When sound cinema’s techniques have become overused, the creators of these modern shows looked back to the silent film for inspiration. Far from creating a fantastic new mode of storytelling, they are simply honing skills founded in the past, skills that were originally discarded as old fashioned. It’s also important to note then that while silent cinema’s less realist imagery had vanished from the mainstream, if this aspect can be re-appropriated into one of TVs most popular programmes, then others can return to populist culture as well.