Monday, March 9, 2009

Writing your way out of your own mythology

This week, my girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) and I are going to sit down and watch about four or five episodes of Battlestar Galactica back to back. We have the bare minimum cable package, and here in western Canada, that does not include anybody broadcasting BSG.

We've had the tapes for a week now, and we haven't exactly been in a rush to finish them off, despite being in the middle of the Gaeta Mutiny. (I like Alessandro Juliani better in live theatre. We referred to him as Romeo for the first season, because we've seen him do plenty of Shakespeare in Vancouver over the years.) 

My love for BSG, in full flower after the mini series and the first season, has now withered and could blow away in a strong wind. I just don't have any confidence that there's a mythology there that's going to make sense.

The whole term mythology or mytharc started showing up a lot when The X-Files was ramping up. I watched that series from the get go. Then, around season seven, I just stopped. I've never seen the finale. I don't care. There was no way to fix what was wrong, not in two hours, not in two years worth of episodes.

The field of science fiction and fantasy TV is littered with series that showed early promise and then crashed and burned under the weight of their own myth building, and their creators total inability to untie the knotted plot threads.

The X-Files is the template for all these shows, for good and ill. It was fairly innovative in its day for attempting to create a serialized show out of a cop/supernatural format. Almost every other cop show of the day relied on one-off episodes, as did most SF shows of the 1980s and early '90s, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and the remake of The Twilight Zone. Continuity was for soaps and teen dramas.

When The X-Files hit it big, almost every copycat show attempted to follow its paradigm of mixing one-offs with mytharc elements. Just from Fox in the 1990s, I remember Strange Luck and VR.5, the latter a show so terrible I would saw open my own skull and pour in lye rather than watch it again. Anthony Stewart Head notwithstanding.

The serialization started to become more and more prevalent, not just on SF shows, but on a lot of the programs on HBO. Check out Deadwood, The Wire, or The Sopranos. A new generation of SF shows dove even further into serialization. The later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer don't make sense at all if you haven't been paying close attention for about five or six years. 

The problem isn't the serialized format; I love a good ongoing story. It's that too many SF showrunners learned how to do it from Chris Carter, and not enough from J. Michael Straczynski or Joss Whedon. (Say what you will about his dialogue, Stracznyski knew how to plan.)

You can almost always tell whether there's a plan within the first half dozen episodes of a program. Any one problem won't kill a show, but if you pile them one on top of the other, things get problematic fast. Bad signs include:

Deliberate withholding of information from the audience and characters. My girlfriend pointed out that in The X-Files, Mulder and Scully usually knew exactly as much as the audience. At best, audiences saw a tiny glimpse behind the curtain – they'd see Cancer Man popping some evidence away in a vault, or conferring with some other suits. Compare to Lost, in which we are constantly confronted with A) characters seeing something and reacting with shock, while the audience is in the dark or B) the audience sees something that's supposedly significant, but none of the nine hundred or so main characters knows about it. (I know, they're trying to create tension, but the technique only works if used sparingly.) The tendency to withhold information is linked to

Deeply incurious protagonists. At least Mulder and Scully were always trying to figure things out. I watched the first season of Carnivale in open disgust of the protagonist, who was constantly being approached by people who wanted to explain his powers and the quasi-Biblical weirdness that surrounded him. And he'd run away, fingers in his ears shouting "La la la la, I can't hear you!" As a viewer I feel like I've been slapped in the face when a character openly refuses information. At that point, the writers are just being dicks. Compare this to BSG (both were headed by Ron Moore) in which it seems like no one is asking the Cylons a lot of pertient questions. How did they know about the Final Five? Who created their religion? How are they different from normal humans, anyway? (These may have been answered by now, I'll know when I check the tapes. But I doubt it, and the questions should have been asked much, much earlier in any case.)

Dropped plot threads. This is Lost's favourite trick. Go on, start to count up all the plots and hints that have just fallen by the wayside. Smoke monsters, slave ships, four-toed statues, a second island, immortal guys, baby-killing diseases, voices in the forest. And where did all the wild boars go, anyway? If there isn't a coherent plan, dropped plot threads will strangle a show, like they did the X-Files. I'm sure somewhere there's a fan with a giant wall chart that explains all the conspiracies and aliens in Chris Carter's first show, but it's all fanwanking. You cannot reconcile all the alien species, from greys to black goo to clones to baseball players to transgendered Amish sex vampires.

Constantly revolving cast. How many main characters does Lost have? Outside of the fairly large core of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Jin and Sun, and Locke, there have been at least two dozen significant characters, all with their own backstories and motivations. Most of them are dead, while others have been pushed to the side. Some show creators eventually get bored with their core cast and their stories, so they add new people. Lots and lots and lots of them. Often they replace the main characters, or some of them, expecting fans to go along with it. It almost never works. Ask poor Robert Patrick.

Expanding universe. This afflicted The X-Files to a certain extent, but also Lost and even Buffy and Angel. The show starts out with a simple concept: girl kills vampires; FBI agents investigate a hidden world of conspiracies and aliens; plane crashes on mysterious island. Then more and more and more elements are added, until the original plot thread is in danger of being forgotten. Which leads us to

No ending. How was The X-Files supposed to end? With Mulder and Scully blowing the lid off all the conspiracies and revealing aliens to the world? And Lost? Half the main cast has already escaped from the island. What's the central premise of the show now? Where's it going? I don't believe that The X-Files was ever meant to have an ending, a finale that would wrap it all up. But the fans were certainly expecting one. Everyone expects an ending to a narrative, a wrap up linked to the central premise, and being left hanging leaves the viewers feeling cheated. Again, look to Straczynski, who introduced the Vorlons and Shadows in the first season of Babylon 5. A more obscure example may be the werewolf/murder mystery show Wolf Lake. It was cancelled pretty quickly (not without cause, the writing was wildly uneven, from great to dreadful) but you got the sense that at the end of the first season, we'd at least know who had killed the town patriarch. There was an end goal in sight. Buffy's last episode wrapped up the central concept that was first mentioned in the opening of the first episode: that there was a chosen one. Joss Whedon wrapped up the show by changing the rules.

So it's possible that BSG has an ending planned, and it may even answer many of my questions. It's far from the worst offender when it comes to meandering plots (I'm looking at you, Lost). But I've seen far, far too many shows crushed under their own mythology, and I wouldn't be surprised if the next decade produces a few more.


Mighty Fast Pig said...

I'm experiencing the same kind of sickening dread as the BSG finale approaches. Disappointment approaching betrayal as what used to be my hands-down favorite show seems to be unraveling.

I think long form television, as a form, is around where pre-twentieth century novels were. The writers hadn't quite figured out the form's length or structure, and they were often written for serial publication rather than seen as a distinct entity. Thus, to the modern reader, the plots meander and there are plenty of loose ends.

Modern films and novels, particularly the genre ones, are written to a fairly strict formula out of Syd Field or Robert McKee, honed over the past century. I don't think anybody has written the structure of long form drama.

Ouranosaurus said...

I think it's interesting that there are creators who've figured the structure out for television (and for comics, our other modern serialized story form) but that so many continue to ignore it. You'd expect that after a couple of decades of serialized drama, it would be taught in screenwriting classes, or at least passed on by word of mouth or something.