Let’s just start this right off with spoilers.
continue reading "What I Found Interesting About the 50th Anniversary Special"
Let’s just start this right off with spoilers.
continue reading "What I Found Interesting About the 50th Anniversary Special"
For those of you who didn’t read the previous entries, this series of posts is related to a bit of pop-culture archaeology I did a few months past, trawling Netflix for a bunch of movies that I’d been meaning to watch but never quite got around to seeing. On the logic that if I was still thinking about them years later, they must have something going for them, I finally watched them all in one long binge, and am sharing the results with you!
This one, ‘Pontypool’, was part of the glut of zombie movies that have taken over the horror genre in the last decade or so. I don’t think I’m providing any deep psychological insights by suggesting that there’s a link between the events of 9/11/2001 and the wave of zombie movies; 9/11 traumatized American culture, and stories about societal collapse and the return of fears long thought buried are a pretty sensible response to that horror. (That’s also why we got our first “fast zombie” movies after 9/11; slow zombies are an implacable march of horror, while fast zombies represent that sense of chaos and rapidly-escalating threat that became very familiar to people who turned on their TVs one morning to see a national landmark suddenly disappear. The 2004 ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake absolutely captures its zeitgeist perfectly. But I digress.)
‘Pontypool’ isn’t a “fast zombie” movie, but it does use one of the most popular tropes of the zombie story; it evokes societal collapse through modern media. When society crumbles and the zombie horde overruns humanity, we’re not going to learn about it first-hand…at least, not if we’re lucky…we’re going to learn about it from the news. In this case, it’s a radio station out in the middle of nowhere, in a small town called Pontypool, whose reports slowly and eerily turn from the mundane day-to-day routine of traffic and weather to reports of riots, martial law, and finally the town’s own little apocalypse.
All of which would be a bit over-familiar even if executed well, except that ‘Pontypool’s zombie hordes aren’t exactly the kind you’re used to. Sure, they’re mindless. Sure, they rampage. Sure, they even lumber around and attack people. But this movie has a whole different way of conceptualizing zombies; this zombie plague isn’t spread by bite or scratch, but through an entirely different and unsettling manner. I’m trying hard not to spoil it, because one of the most interesting things about this movie is the way that it presents its information in a way that disorients not just the characters, but the audience as well. You never quite feel like you know what’s going on in ‘Pontypool’ on first viewing, and that’s one of its best elements. I’d like to preserve that for you. So I’ll just say that it’s not quite your typical zombie movie and leave it at that.
The “Run! It’s the zombies! Barricade the doors!” part of the film, which is pretty much de rigeur for the sub-genre, does bring it back to predictability just a tad. There are only so many ways that you can have people fend off a zombie horde, after all. But I forgave the movie that little bit of bog-standard zombie-ness, because there’s still a ton of excellent characterization and creepy atmosphere leading into that end of things…not to mention a weird, lingering epilogue that takes a strange detour into arthouse surrealism. On the whole, I’d say it’s worth your time to look it up on Netflix.
So, um, right. Where was I? Oh, yes. ‘John Dies At the End’.
Simply put, this is great. It’s great in that weird, quirky, cult way that ‘Army of Darkness’ or ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai’ is great…well, in that way that ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai’ should be great but isn’t in any kind of practical sense, because the screenwriter is so in love with the concept that they never actually bother doing anything with it and the only real difference between it and ‘Leonard Part Six’ is Bill Cosby’s incessant mugging and everyone says it’s full of quotable lines but they all only ever quote the same two damn jokes…
…sorry. That sort of went to a weird place. The point is, ‘John Dies At the End’ is an intensely personal movie. It is someone writing a story that they know is probably only going to appeal to them, but they don’t care because it’s an idea that is flowing so deeply from their soul that they can’t not write it. And if they ever find a second person who enjoys it, then so much the better, but they don’t have a whole a whole lot of interest in changing it for mass appeal.
Which isn’t to say that they didn’t change the movie to making it a little more audience-friendly. There are changes from the book, primarily because a) the book is really long and needs to be condensed a bit to fit it into movie length, and b) the ending is a bit of a downer, and even though the tone is all over the place between Lovecraftian horror and splatstick comedy, it still works a bit better with a happier ending. Oh, and c) when you get Clancy Freaking Brown in your movie, you beef up his role a bit. But it’s amazing how much of the weird, discursive, digressive, occasionally perverse if not outright perverted spirit of the story survives the transition to film entirely intact.
For those of you unfamiliar with the novel or film, it follows the adventures of David Wong and his best friend John, who stumble onto a consciousness-expanding drug called “soy sauce” that makes you aware of the greater, stranger, scarier hidden world beyond normal human perception. It also makes that hidden world aware of you, which is why David is now having to deal with demons made out of frozen meat and ghosts and parallel universes and the kind of weird shit that makes people go find a little rubber room somewhere to be voluntarily committed to, just on the grounds that it makes it harder for THEM to get to you. On that score, it’s a cool and creepy horror movie with some wonderful scare moments.
On the other level, though, it’s a hilarious comedy, because the response of real people to crazy shit isn’t necessarily to go crazy in that classic Lovecraftian “rant and rave and wind up in a rubber room” way. We have coping mechanisms, and sometimes those take the form of laughing at the strangeness of it all and sometimes they take the form of blowing off saving the universe in order to play pick-up basketball with your best friend and sometimes they take the form of combining a nuclear bomb with industrial-grade hallucinogens because it may not kill the Lovecraftian horror-god, but “it will sure fuck his shit up”. And on that level, it’s absolutely hilarious.
So I can’t guarantee that you will love ‘John Dies At the End’ the way I did, because it’s a deeply personal movie and deeply personal movies always have a love-it-or-hate-it aspect to them. But that’s what makes them worth watching even if you wind up hating them, because it’s worth encouraging people who pour their souls out like that and make the world a more wonderful and strange place by giving us their artistic visions instead of mass-produced soulless tripe. Movies like this cannot leave you unaffected, even if that effect is to hate them.
In other words, you may not love it…but it will sure fuck your shit up.
I’m really hesitant to recommend ‘Super’ to anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the movie a lot; the performances are all great, from Rainn Wilson’s painfully awkward, possibly mentally ill superhero to Ellen Page’s fantastically creepy amoral turn as a sidekick who’s just fine with crushing bad guys’ legs with a car to Kevin Bacon, who plays wonderfully against type as a drug dealer who’s really more interested in doing drugs and making money than in being any kind of “criminal mastermind”. The plot unfolds with a strange, horrifyingly logical progression that never stops being believable even as it turns into a big action-packed shootout between superheroes and drug lords. The jokes are…ahh. Well. Yes. That’s where I hesitate to recommend it.
Because if you have a really sick, twisted, perverse and disturbed sense of humor, ‘Super’ is really, really funny. If you think that someone getting beaten with a pipe wrench for cutting in line is comedy gold, or that you can have a funny scene of someone getting shot in the leg, or that brutal, entirely realistic violence can somehow be presented in such a way that makes you laugh as much out of surprise that someone would actually put this on film as any other reason, well…then you will love ‘Super’. If you’re um, sane, well-adjusted and a generally decent human being, then maybe not so much. It’s not that you won’t find anything to like, here. James Gunn does a really good job of portraying Liv Tyler as a realistic, interesting, complex drug addict who isn’t just a prize for Rainn Wilson and Kevin Bacon to fight over, and there’s a lot of material in there about the ethics of using violence to solve complex societal problems. But there’s also a scene where a woman slices up a guy with fake Wolverine claws and cackles madly as she murders him, and some of you might not be up for that.
So, um, ‘Super’. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. If you don’t, consider this fair warning now. Because if you watch it based on my recommendation, and you wind up absolutely hating the movie and everyone involved in its creation and me by extension, well…I’d rather not have it get around that I inspired the protests, okay?
The Matrix: Given that we perceive the world entirely through our senses, the ultimate nature of reality will always be subject to irreconcilable doubt.
The Matrix Reloaded: Why yes, the Wachowski Brothers would like large sums of money, thank you very much.
The Matrix Revolutions: If your agent is good enough, you can get a $110 million dollar sequel greenlit before anyone even sees the movie it’s following.
The Terminator: Even though it might feel like you’re an ordinary person powerless to affect the vast sweep of history, you can do more than you might think.
Apocalypse Now: It’s easy to lose your perspective on “sanity” when you get too far away from other people.
Cast Away: It’s easy to lost your perspective on “sanity” when you get too far away from other people.
Road to Perdition: You will never truly understand your father, and you will always miss him.
The Lion King: In a world with limited resources, it’s just better that a privileged class of rulers takes the majority of the food and leaves everyone else struggling over scraps, and trying to change this is evil.
Grave of the Fireflies: No matter how just your cause, when you go to war you will turn people into victims.
I, Robot: Racial prejudice is entirely justified, and all those people who think we can get along are just dupes blinded to the secret cabal who rules the world and plans to murder us all when the time is right!
The Dark Knight: Being a hero sometimes means sacrificing your own personal happiness.
Jurassic Park: Treat the “little people” nice, because they can make your life a living hell if you screw them over.
Resident Evil: Biological warfare is an ultimately suicidal pursuit.
Twilight: Dysfunctional, sociopathic stalkers are sexy because they’re really into you!
King Kong: Wild animals don’t make good pets, and are best appreciated in their natural habitat from a safe distance.
The Shining: It sucks when you’re a kid and parents get a new job that uproots you from your familiar environment.
Room 237: Postmodern film critique can lead you down some pretty fucking crazy rabbit holes, dude.
Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150 AD: It would really have sucked if the Nazis had won World War II.
Stargate: No matter how hard it seems, you have to let go of the past or you might as well be dead.
The Wishmaster: A clear head and the ability to think on your feet are immensely valuable.
The Omen: As much as you love your children, they’re always going to be a living reminder of your mortality and that’s always going to be faintly unnerving.
Friday the 13th: Sometimes people will blame you for shit you didn’t even do, and they can’t be reasoned with.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Hedonism isn’t as bad as some people proclaim it to be, and only uptight prudes get upset about casual sex and transvestitism…and, um, murder…and…er…cannibalism.
Quarantine: Authority figures prefer to operate in secret primarily because they don’t like to be held accountable to the general public for their actions.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Risks are worth taking, because ultimately they (sentence to be continued next year)
The logic in my head went thusly:
1. Edward Norton was utterly wasted in ‘The Incredible Hulk’, a movie about a man with a split personality who was destructive and at odds with his ‘primary’ self.
2. Prior to that, Norton was probably best known for ‘Fight Club’, a movie about a man with a split personality who was destructive and who (came to be) at odds with his primary self.
3. Previous Hulk stories have featured the Hulk at varying levels of intelligence. You could, without betraying the source material, write a Hulk who was as eloquent and charismatic as Tyler Durden. And the potential for stunt-casting with Brad Pitt would be too hard to pass up. In some alternate universe, we got a version of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ written as a superhero homage to ‘Fight Club’.
4. When writing dialogue from this alternate Hulk movie, it’s worth remembering that Hulk dialogue is always funnier when written in Roy Thomas’ green Hulk argot.
“First Rule of Hulk Club: Hulk not talk about Hulk Club.”
“Second Rule of Hulk Club: HULK NOT TALK ABOUT HULK CLUB! RRRAAAARRRRGGGGH!”
“Third Rule of Hulk Club: When puny human say ‘stop’, go limp, tap out, Hulk stop smashing them.”
“Fourth Rule of Hulk Club: It not fair to gang up on Hulk.”
“Fifth Rule of Hulk Club: Hulk will smash you when Hulk finished smashing other puny human.”
“Sixth Rule of Hulk Club: No shirts. No shoes. Only purple pants.”
“Seventh Rule of Hulk Club: Hulk will smash as long as Hulk has to smash.”
“And Eighth Rule of Hulk Club: If this your first night at Hulk Club…you must SMASH!”
So over on io9 they’ve posted an article about the central problem with Stephen Moffatt’s Doctor Who, and while I agree with some of their points, I think that the central problem with it — with almost any incarnation of Doctor Who, though particularly with this one — is that it makes absolutely no sense.
I’m not talking about things that are scientifically impossible or implausible, which to my mind are no more legitimate criticisms of Doctor Who are than saying the the monsters look phony and the sets are made of cardboard. What I mean is that the central premise of the show makes no sense from a logical perspective.
It’s particularly obvious in recent years because the show has returned to doing a lot of show set in Earth’s past, but always with some fantastic element (I’m informed, via The AV Club, that “Black Orchid” was the last historical Who story with no SF element other than the Doctor in it, and it was the first one since “The Aztecs” about twenty years earlier.) Often these fantastic elements would have earth-shaking or even earth-destroying consequences (an Ice Warrior triggering a nuclear war in the 1980s, for example) if the Doctor didn’t stop them. But the Doctor has been to our time, which has not shaken or blown up by any of these events, “before” (in his timeline) going to many of these times and places. So how did these events happen “before” the Doctor got involved? Why wasn’t modern-day London a smoking, radioactive ruin until the Doctor went back and stopped that Russian sub’s missiles from launching?
Now maybe this has been answered somewhere — I’ll admit to not having an encyclopedic knowledge of all Whoiana, especially of the Colin Baker-Sylvester McCoy years — but to my mind there are a couple of possible answers. The first is that these things didn’t happen because the Doctor “always” went there — essentially, when he visited our present (or future) he was experiencing the effects of things he would do in our past, his future. This makes the most logical sense but is also the most dramatically unsatisfying, because it basically means that everything he does is already set down by fate.
The only other option, considering that multiple timelines have been declared a no-no in Who canon (and are similarly undramatic, since they undercut the significance of anything you do when you travel in time) is that the times and places the Doctor goes are in some way temporally indeterminate: essentially, if they’re left alone they’ll happen the way they did in our history, but they can be changed by outside intervention. The problem with that interpretation is that it suggests that everything would be fine if the Doctor just stayed home, and that he’s risking all life on Earth to satisfy his wanderlust. Unless, that is, we suppose that each indeterminate point can only be changed once, in which case the Doctor is being brought to them so that he can seal them up before some other time traveler does.
Why are these points in time and space indeterminate? Why are so many on Earth? Why are they crawling with extraterrestrial and interdimensional visitors? Why do they so often seem to create points where history could be changed significantly? And why is it the Doctor’s job to seal — or perhaps we should say stitch them up? I don’t know. But they are pretty interesting questions…
(with a tip of the hat to the wonderful ‘Room 237′…)
The key to understanding the Kubrick movie ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is to understand that Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, one who never left anything to chance. The reshoots that Kubrick undertook, reshoots that scrapped an already-filmed and extremely expensive ending, were explicit in changing the original film as well as the Broadway play. These changes were not undertaken by chance. By examining them on a frame-by-frame basis, backwards as well as forwards, we can see how Kubrick was actually making a movie about …
(…to be continued once I go completely insane…)
I’ve thought for a long while that any long-running series eventually stops being about anything other than itself. Each individual story might be about something; “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example, is about the absurdity of racial prejudice. But that’s not what ‘Star Trek’ is about. Other episodes of the series were about friendship, or about sexism, or about obsession…until eventually, all you could really say about the series was that it was about the Enterprise crew and the things that happened to them. Each episode was like a color transparency, laid over each other episode until all you could see was a character-shaped hole.
You could say the same thing about ‘Buffy’, about ‘Highlander’, about just about every long-running series…in the end, the changes forced on them by circumstance and the need to keep the show creatively fresh made them less about high school or the Gathering or the alien conspiracy or the fall of the Greek gods and more, eventually, about a person to whom things happen. A season might have an arc, an episode might have a point, but ‘Buffy’ is about a young woman named Buffy.
I’ve come to the conclusion, recently, that ‘Doctor Who’ is (as always, it seems, among science-ficton/fantasy series) an exception. ‘Doctor Who’ is about something, all the way through its fifty-year history, and it’s not the Doctor. In fact, the key to realizing what it’s about is to realize that the Doctor isn’t really what the series is about at all. It’s about the people around him. The Doctor is a catalyst, an agent of change, and the show ‘Doctor Who’ is about the way that people deal with him (and by extension, the monsters he fights and the strangeness of his universe) being thrust into their worldview.
Because everyone has a worldview, a collection of concepts and information that forms the underpinning to their mental existence. Things fall down, cars take you places, jobs pay you money, and the world works the way you’ve come to expect it to each day. We all form an opinion about the Way Things Are…and crucially, we all deal in different ways when that worldview is disrupted.
Some people become angry. Obama becoming President, for example, created a kind of hysterical rage in a certain type of person, because in their world black people did not become President. Obama wasn’t just a man who disagreed with them, he was a sign that their entire existence had come to an end, to be replaced by a strange new world where all their old certainties had dissolved. These people have to believe that he somehow cheated his way into the Oval Office, because they can’t accept the fundamental idea of his legitimacy.
Other people become elated by the change. The unexpected fills them with delight, tells them that there are still surprises left in a boring and predictable world. Seeing a paralyzed woman pick up a cup with a robot arm controlled entirely by her mind elicits a sort of giddiness, a sense that you’re taking a step into a bigger and stranger and more wonderful universe than you previously knew existed.
And many people, to quote the ‘Doctor Who’ story “The Face of Evil”, “rework the facts to fit their views.” Information that changes their worldview too much becomes false, even if the logic required to fit the lie into their head becomes strained to the point of absurdity. People are willing to imagine vast and shadowy conspiracies of government coups and secret shadow agencies if the alternative is accepting that a President can get his head blown clean off by a stranger with a rifle and a grudge.
This is what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. It’s about the ways that people deal with situations that challenge their worldviews. Each story establishes a world, whether it be 1960s London or an alien planet thousands of years in the future, and then it drops the Doctor–a tiny piece of impossibility–into that world. Just to see what happens. (This is one reason why the series can run for so long on such a premise…it’s inherently new-viewer friendly. Since you have to establish the world before you can change it, you’re constantly creating entry points for people who’ve never seen the show before.)
Sometimes people cope with the changes. The first two seasons of the series were about Ian and Barbara, two normal 60s schoolteachers, dealing with situation after situation that was entirely outside of their experience. Rose gleefully embraces the strangeness, Dodo freaks out and leaves the second she gets the chance, and Tegan treats it like a package tour until the point where it all gets to be too much for her.
Other people try to slot the Doctor into their worldview. The new show makes it explicit with the psychic paper–when the Doctor shows it to you, you see what you expect him to be reflected back at you–but even in the old series, the Doctor was always treated like what he was expected to be. Authoritarians saw him as a rebel, police slotted him in as a criminal, scientists expected him to be a kindred spirit. People have tried, desperately and endlessly, to make him fit. Only to find, to their frustration, that’s he’s exactly what he says he is, and nothing else.
The people who can’t accept that, in ‘Doctor Who’, tend to come to unpleasant ends. If you can’t accept that a Dalek or an Ice Warrior isn’t something familiar and acceptable, something you can fit into your worldview by negotiating with them or threatening them or ignoring them, they will probably kill you. The only chance you have to survive in ‘Doctor Who’ is to keep an open mind, to accept that the universe is bigger and stranger and more wonderful than you previously imagined, and to believe the facts when they’re right in front of your face, even if they’re not pleasant. And that’s a premise big enough to last fifty years and then some.
Allergy season means I get (more) easily distracted, so I find myself perusing Cracked.com a lot more lately. I kind of hate Cracked, but sometimes it gives me something interesting to complain about, so what can you do? Anyway, amid all the same-y lists like “8 Stupid Things The Man Has Tricked You Sheeple Into Believing” and “6 Incredible Facts You Already Read on Wikipedia,” I came across “5 Reasons Superhero Movies Are a Bubble That Will Soon Burst.”
The whole thing is painfully tl;dr, but the gist of it is comparing the evolution of the superhero genre to the rise and fall of New Hollywood. Essentially: Hollywood takes a chance on a new idea, the new idea is an unexpected success, Hollywood tries to make the new idea into something easily repeatable and consistently profitable, until they ruin it. It took 13 years for New Hollywood to get from Bonnie and Clyde to Heaven’s Gate, and it’s been 13 years since the first X-Men movie, ergo Guardians of the Galaxy is going to suck.
There’s a lot of problems with this reasoning, so let’s start with the big one: the guy who wrote the article has no idea what qualifies as a “superhero movie.” In tracking the development of his putative bubble, the writer refers to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot and the forthcoming Disney version of the Star Wars franchise. Now, the reasoning here is to compare the film geek directors from New Hollywood with the SF/F dork directors who actually like the source material they’re adapting today. And I suppose there’s a point there–Hollywood listening to the Joss Whedons of the world is sort of a new thing, and perhaps it will fizzle out as the Cracked article suggests. But that issue is separate from the fortunes of superhero movies, the topic identified in the article’s title.
It’s also telling that the piece defines the superhero genre as launching in 2000, because X-Men was he first attempt at a superhero film since Batman & Robin apparently smote the earth with a terrible curse or something. Look, I hate Batman & Robin as much as anybody, but that only “killed” superhero movies about three years before X-Men “saved” it, so let’s not pretend that was some interminable drought for the genre. To be honest, the superhero genre has been chugging along as far back as the 1978′s Superman–the only major change that X-Men represents is that Marvel finally got in the game with its A-material. Take Marvel off the table and the volume of superhero movies for the last thirteen years doesn’t look substantially different from the 1990s.
So let’s rephrase the question to the one the article only pretends to address: Is the Marvel superhero movie bubble about to burst? I don’t see why. Cracked seems to think the current run of “for nerds by nerds” movies will give way to safer, blander blockbusters. But even if you accept this as inevitable (or think its already happened), said blockbusters would still be superhero movies. The next Star Wars isn’t going to be as groundbreaking or beloved as the first one, but Star Wars movies are still a thing which is still happening–you may think the newer ones suck more, but you can’t argue that they’re going away.
I suppose the implied question is more like “Will Marvel movies continue to be consistently good?” But that’s a fallacy anyway since there have been quite a few shitty Marvel movies already, and that didn’t stop Avengers from clicking. People act like one Marvel movie can only succeed if Marvel as a whole remains bulletproof. But that aura of invincibility depends on you only counting their tentpole franchises (X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers that aren’t Iron Man), and even that subset had a stinker or two. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have to be a home run because the people who gave us Elektra and Ghost Rider weren’t exactly batting a thousand to begin with.
I’m watching ‘Babylon 5′ for the first time this year. (What can I say, it’s not exactly something you do over a weekend.) It’s funny, because I remember all of my friends and most of my acquaintances absolutely rhapsodizing about the series when it was on, while I kind of didn’t get into it because nobody really started talking about how awesome it was until Season Three, and all of them talked about how you had to get into it from the beginning to really understand what was going on right now and this was a pre-DVD era so tracking down the episodes didn’t seem worth my time right that second.
But what a lot of them wound up saying was that Seasons 2-4 were great, but that Season 5 was a big letdown and that while there were great moments, ultimately JMS’ goal of doing a single five-year long story told in episodic form had to be considered a failure, due to the ways he had to unexpectedly truncate the story out of fear that they wouldn’t get a Season Five, then just as unexpectedly elongate the epilogue when it got greenlit after all. (And I’ve also been told it didn’t help that Claudia Christian didn’t come back for Season Five. But the Cult of Ivanova has faded over the years, from its fever pitch of 1996.) Now, I will issue the caveat before I speak further, that I am currently getting ready to watch “Z’ha’dum” later tonight, so I’m not even into Season Four yet let alone Season Five. But knowing what I do know about the series that’s coming and the series I’ve already seen (which is actually quite a bit, since it’s not exactly easy to avoid spoilers for a twenty-year-old TV series)…can you show me anyone who’s done this better? For that matter, can you show me anyone who’s done it nearly as well?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit, since the question first occurred to me, and nothing’s coming to mind. ‘Lost’ and ‘BSG’ both have a legion of fans who will be quick to tell you how badly the series finales fared as actual summations of the show as a whole, not to mention how clear it became at the halfway point that these guys didn’t have a plan for the endgame and were just winging it. ‘Heroes’? They didn’t even have a plan for Season Two, let alone a potential series conclusion. ”X-Files’ tried, but was hamstrung both by its showrunner’s terminal phobia of revealing any of the series’ secrets, and by the departure of most of the cast by the end. ‘Fringe’, by all accounts, had some great ideas but a confusing and inconsistent logic in explaining key plot points. ’Buffy’ and ‘Angel’, while good, never seemed to have a long-term plan…they were content to go it one year at a time, with some notions about down the road if needed. (Which is why Anya suddenly becomes a vengeance demon again…and then just as suddenly becomes human six episodes later, because those six episodes crucially fell over a season break.) ‘Stargate’ and its spin-offs, ‘Star Trek: DS9′, ‘Highlander’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Xena’, ‘Walking Dead’, ‘Fringe’, ‘Eureka’, ‘Warehouse 13′, ‘Doctor Who’…it’s not that these weren’t good series, but none of them even tried to do what ‘B5′ did. About the only series I can think of that’s consciously having a beginning/middle/end structure along these lines is ‘Game of Thrones’, and we can’t judge that until it’s over.
So, is it fair to say that the series that have tried to have long-term, overarching, series-long storyarcs have wound up illuminating just how tricky it is to pull that kind of thing off, and made ‘Babylon 5′ look all the more impressive by comparison? Or am I giving some of the shows above (or a show I forgot to mention) short shrift? Or am I going to be changing my tune once I see how Season Five plays out? Your thoughts below!
Yes, I’m posting about the new Doctor Who. Because if I do have a “thing” on this website, which I’m quite prepared to entertain arguments that I don’t, it’s that I’m the “Doctor Who guy”. And there’s a new half-season on, because the BBC is too cheap to fund more than about six episodes a year right now (I wouldn’t be so annoyed by this if the show wasn’t profitable as well as entertaining and popular and well-made–yes, it has a high production budget, but it makes it back and then some in merchandising.) And the first episode, ‘The Bells of St. John’s', aired last Saturday. So let’s chat about it after the cut.
When I said that to my wife a bit ago, she looked at me and said, “I have no idea what you mean by that.” I’m kind of assuming you feel the same way, so I’ll explain.
A traditional ‘alternate universe’ story, which is something that just about every sci-fi/fantasy series gets to from time to time, is like pornography in that it’s really just the same thing each time with very little variation. Each AU storyline purports to focus on a single point of divergence that has sent history down a different path…but the differences are never so great as to preclude instant audience identification. (For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise”, twenty years of war with the Klingon Empire hasn’t resulted in any advances in technology beyond the Galaxy class starship, the Enterprise hasn’t been destroyed and replaced by the E or F, and all of the bridge crew have not only survived but have wound up in the exact same command positions on the exact same ship. Likewise, Giles is still assigned to the Hellmouth and despite the subtext of many episodes involving the idea that what separates Buffy from other Slayers who’ve died young is her friendships and connections with the everyday world, the only sign that Buffy is any less skilled as a Slayer is the little scar on her lip.)
The “twists” to this reality are designed, like porn, to provide simple and visceral thrills. They are less intended as logical consequence of any particular point of divergence as they are to give the audience the specific excitement of breaking well-established narrative rules. The premature death of Charles Xavier, for example, doesn’t lead to the dystopia ruled by Apocalypse because Charles Xavier did anything in particular, it leads to the dystopia ruled by Apocalypse because it’s the only chance that Marvel has to show a world where the bad guys won and the heroes are a desperate resistance movement. In the much later “Here Comes Tomorrow” storyline, Beast isn’t a villain because it’s a logical extension of Scott’s retirement from the team; he’s a villain because showing a fan favorite hero as the villain is a staple of alternate universe stories. (Another common trope is best exemplified in the ‘Magik’ series, where the cute and winsome Shadowcat is shown, in the alternate dimension of Limbo, as being a hardened warrior. The series also shows charming and friendly Nightcrawler as a lecherous villain…basically, you can chalk up 95% of alternate universe stories to the combinations of “set in a dystopian reality”, “well-liked hero is a villain”, “infamous villain is a good guy”, and “comic relief/peril monkey character is a total bad-ass”.)
And, like pornography, alternative universe stories have their own version of the “money shot”. If you accept the idea that the breaking of series narrative conventions in an AU story is the sci-fi/fantasy series equivalent of the sex in porn (and roughly the same amount of time is devoted in AU stories to showing how different and unexpected the alternative timeline is as is devoted to the sex in a porn movie), then the natural “climax” is the ultimate breaking of narrative convention, the death of characters who normally are given a protected status by their role in the story. Buffy is always safe in the Buffyverse (and possibly the only person who is)…so therefore, she has to die at the end of ‘The Wish’. ‘Days of Future Past’ has to end with a bloodbath, because it’s the only time Chris Claremont can get away with incinerating Wolverine, Storm, Colossus and Magneto in a single issue.
Does this mean that alternate universe stories are without merit? No. Like porn, there are wide variations in quality. (‘Days of Future Past’ would be qualified as “erotica” in this analogy, for example.) But it is worth remembering that stories like these always start out with a huge advantage in fan’s affections because that’s really all they’re intended to do. They are stories made to give long-term followers of the series “fangasms”, no more and no less.
When I wrote last week’s post, about how it it’s okay to form opinions on things you haven’t seen yet, and even to not change those opinions in the face of opposition from people who have seen those things, many people pointed out the perilous downside to this. Which is that, just as we have all (or most of us have) been faced by an angry fan snarling out, “How can you judge it if you haven’t even seen it?”…we have also all been on the receiving end of dripping disdain wielded by someone who read about a casting rumor on io9 that shows that the movie is totally going to suck because the gay cowboy from ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is playing the Joker and there’s no point in even watching it now.
Those people are absolutely right. (The people who point out the perilous downside, not the people who refused to watch ‘The Dark Knight’ because Heath Ledger was in it.) There’s no question that fans can be obnoxious, and that any creative decision that’s daring and unconventional will attract a crowd of people not just ready but eager to jump on it with hobnailed boots before they have a chance to really judge it. The impulse to see a truly spectacular failure in progress is an old one, and there are many who will say that it resulted in a lot of brilliant stories never getting a fair shake. (Even now, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has its defenders, and I’ve met someone who will insist that ‘Sucker Punch’ is a Brechtian masterpiece.)
We all have a responsibility not to be that fan. It is okay not to like things. It is even okay to not like things irrationally, based on little to no evidence. If you are wrong, the only thing you’re hurting is you, after all. And yes, it is okay to tell people that you’re not interested in something when it comes up in conversation (like, say, a discussion of “Things You Irrationally Dislike Based On Almost No Evidence”.) But what isn’t okay is to be aggressive. Going into a comics forum to tell everyone that you’re not even going to pick up ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ because it’s s obvious it’s going to suck…not cool. Sitting in on a DC panel just so you can tell everyone that ‘Flashpoint’ was the last DC comic you’re ever reading…why bother? Clearly nobody there will agree with you, because they’re all there to hear about the new comics coming out of DC, so why do you want to start an argument? It’s okay to let people disagree with you. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever say you didn’t like something, or even to have a friendly argument about the relative merits of a film/book/TV show/comic/play. It’s good to discuss things, and and even to have wildly differing opinions. The point at which you start getting upset at people for liking things you have no interest in, though, is the point at which you need to just take a step back, relax, and remember that just as nobody can make you watch ‘Green Lantern’, you don’t have to make a pre-emptive strike on their enjoyment in order to stop them from forcing it down your throat.
If for no other reason than someday, you might change your mind. And when you do, the last thing you want is for all your friends to remind you of the time you said you wouldn’t watch ‘Buffy’ because you weren’t a thirteen-year-old girl.
I still haven’t seen ‘Revolution’.
Honestly, I don’t even know if it’s been picked up for a second season, or whether it’s going to be another one of those post-’Lost’ series that the networks poured money into hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time only to see it die a quick and painful death. (Along with ‘The Event’, ‘FlashForward’, ‘No Ordinary Family’, ‘Heroes’…and yes, ‘Heroes’ died a slow painful death instead…the point is that a lot of people have tried to recreate what made ‘Lost’ popular, only to find out that it doesn’t work like that.) And the greater point is, I haven’t watched it because it looked lousy.
I kind of do this a lot. I didn’t see ‘Cloud Atlas’, I didn’t read ‘Avengers vs. X-Men’, and I have no intention of checking out ‘The Lone Ranger’. Why? Because they all look awful. This is one of those statements that feels like it shouldn’t be contentious, but it very frequently is. Because everyone has different tastes, and each of the stories described above has people who will defend it passionately and vociferously. (Except maybe ‘The Lone Ranger’. That thing will sell tickets to Johnny Depp’s immediate family only. And even they’re going to sneak out and see something else.) And these defenders always have a single defense whenever anyone says, “I didn’t see that because it looked awful.” That defense is, “Well, how do you know it’s awful if you didn’t even see it?”
On some levels, this is the perfect attack. It paints your opponent as ignorant…and worse, as prejudiced. They saw two minutes of footage from a movie, and instantly decided they knew what was going to happen in the entire 90 minutes. (Or 186 minutes, if you’re one of the people who skipped watching ‘The Hobbit’.) They don’t know the ending, they haven’t experienced the twists, they can’t possibly judge a film/TV show/book/comic based on an ad for it!
But there’s a simple counter-argument: Life is too short to waste on shit that you know is going to be shit walking in. This was a gigantic revelation to me as a college student, when I sat down to watch ‘Godzilla’ (1997 version, free ticket) and I realized that even for free, I had overpaid for this by spending my time on it. It looked like it was going to be a bad movie, it got terrible reviews, the word of mouth was lousy, and you know what? It was exactly what everyone said it was. I was not going to discover a secret gem of cinema that the masses had disdained when I saw ‘Godzilla’. I was going to be wasting my time.
And since then, I have (for the most part) trusted my judgment when it came to ads. If it looks bad in two minutes, the odds that they picked the worst two minutes to show you are not high. If the concept sounds stupid, it probably is stupid. (Peter David once said that everyone judged ‘The Other’ as dumb based solely on hearing the concept of “spider-cancer”. Speaking as someone who read it, the people who judged it as dumb before reading it are probably happier. They certainly have more money in their pocket.) You do not have to sample everything that comes down the pike just to see if it’s really as bad as it looks, and you don’t have to apologize for skipping something that looks bad. Yes, you might be missing out on something wonderful. You know what? There’s plenty of other wonderful things out there. You can spend your whole life watching movies and not get through them all. Why waste time on the bad stuff? (Unless the bad stuff has a guy and two puppets making fun of it. Then the reasons are self-evident.) Demanding someone go out and watch a bad movie just so that they can argue it’s bad based on more evidence is like demanding they touch the stove just to prove that bright red glow emanating from the metal isn’t a paint job.
So I won’t be watching ‘Revolution’. I won’t make a big deal of it–there’s a whole companion post to this that could be written about people who jump into forums just to tell everyone how lousy the show they like is, and how stupid they are for enjoying it–but I also won’t back away from my opinion on it. Because if I’m right and it’s bad at two minutes, it’s going to be punishing at twelve hours. And I have too many good shows to catch up on to spend twelve hours punishing myself.