Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Good Time For a Break

Just wanted to drop a quick note that no, this week's Storytelling Engines entry is not late; it is entirely absent. I will be spending the week celebrating the holidays, reading "Sgt. Rock", watching old Dracula movies, and dealing with a minor plumbing emergency; two of those four things will contribute to future columns. You may guess which in the columns section.

There may or may not be a Thursday entry (although my track record lately means I should amend that to "There may or may not be a Saturday entry." Hey, it may be late, but at least I haven't just skipped a week. Well, not without telling you.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sports Fan Responsible For MNF Delay, Says NFL

December 26th, 2008--A spokesperson for the National Football League explained today that the reason for the forty-five minute delay to the opening kickoff of this week's Monday Night Football game has been traced down, and discovered to be a Chicago fan who was insufficiently ready for some football. The final game of the season, which was shown in its entirety, was being played in Chicago, a town which is generally known for its football-preparation acumen, making the delay all the more shocking.

"It's always unfortunate when something like this happens," Hank Williams Jr said of the situation. "The vast majority of Chicago fans are not to blame, and it's truly sad that they all had to wait for one person who wasn't quite ready for some football. But I take my duties as host of Monday Night Football seriously. That's why I've begun asking twice, in order to confirm true readiness for some football. When I asked the first time, 'Are you ready?', I got what seemed to be a satisfactory response, and I expected the evening to go off without a hitch. But when I asked, 'I mean, really ready?', I was not satisfied with the response I got from William Sanderson, on the East Side of Chicago. I had no choice but to postpone stamping on the giant button that launches the enormous football helmets out of the roof of my house until Sanderson could be tracked down and his readiness fully ascertained."

Added Williams, "If I had launched too soon, all my rowdy friends would never have forgiven me."

Insufficient football preparation is rare, but always taken seriously by the NFL. At one point, Cincinnati's Monday Night Football game was delayed upwards of a decade to ensure that the team, as well as the fans, were truly ready for some football, while Dallas fans stage frequent drills to ensure proper readiness. Failure to respond promptly to the question, "How 'bout them Cowboys?!" can result in harsh fines within city limits.

Humiliated and ashamed despite their victory, Chicago fans now feel that they must work even harder to demonstrate their readiness for some football. Some 30,000 fans plan to keep a year-round vigil in Soldier Field, working in shifts, in order to ensure that no matter what time of the day or night, even outside of football season, they will in fact be ready for some football. "We've got a lot to prove," said one weary fan. "It's just...damnit, the countdown to the kickoff had officially started! How could he not know?"

Sanderson has refused all media requests, but a statement released through his lawyer claims that he was merely making an extra beer run, and that his car got stuck in the snow. At this time, no legal action is being taken.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Frankenstein"

(or "The Sins Of The Father, Grandfather, Great-Great-Grand-Uncle, Et Cetera...")

When dealing with 'Frankenstein', it's important to carefully delineate which version of the Frankenstein mythos you're talking about in any given discussion. Because while they might all draw on the same source material, Mary Shelley's classic Gothic novel, they definitely don't have the same storytelling engine. The Hammer Frankenstein series, for example, followed Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein as he went through one diabolical experiment after another, descending ever further along a path of perfectly rational madness and calculating viciousness, until he turned into a monster far more inhuman than the ones he created.

The Universal Frankenstein films, though, took a far different tack. They started from virtually the same point: Frankenstein, a scientist with heretical views on artificial life, creates a human being out of an assemblage of corpses and animates it. The resultant Monster (which never gets a name, in the Universal canon) turns out to be a brutish, simple-minded beast instead of the perfect creation Frankenstein intended, at which point the drawbacks of making him eight feet tall with the strength of a dozen men become apparent.

The second Universal film is a pretty natural extension of the first, with Frankenstein being induced to make a female version of his creation (and in the process, creating the very first beehive hairdo.) But it's with "Son of Frankenstein" that the storytelling engine of the series really takes off, and the Frankenstein legacy becomes a key point of the series.

The third movie follows Frankenstein's now-grown son, Wolf, as he returns to his ancestral home, already interested in the reputation his father had and conflicted over his own views of his father as a brilliant man and a great scientist. Despite hearing about the horrors the Monster has visited on the village of Frankenstein over the decades (and yes, that's accurate--if he's the Baron von Frankenstein, it would make sense that the village is the village of Frankenstein), Wolf believes that his father's ideas were fundamentally sound...and when he discovers the dormant Monster, he decides to bring it back to life and cure its defects, fixing what his father made and showing the world what a genius his father truly was.

The first two movies are, of course, excellent cinema, but it's here that the series shows its true potential as a generational saga. This allows individual Frankensteins to progress along different character arcs--some redeeming themselves, some being destroyed, some taking the Hammer tack and becoming human monsters--while preserving the general theme of "scientist tries to do good, but creates evil." The Frankenstein Monster becomes a tangible symbol of a family secret, something that both repels and lures in successive generations of Frankensteins as it endures, eternally. It may fall into a pit of burning sulfur or get entombed in glacial ice, but it's always there, waiting for the next generation of Frankensteins to find and wonder about...and eventually bring to life once more.

Arguably, it's the abandonment of this theme, as much as anything else that led to the demise of the series (and there was quite a bit of "anything else", including random cast changes and a growing insistence on shoehorning in Dracula and the Wolf Man into the films.) And decades later, it was this theme that Mel Brooks returned to in his homage/parody "Young Frankenstein", a film that works as well at being a continuation of the Frankenstein story as it does at being a parody of the series. Frankenstein's grandson might do everything he can to deny his legacy, but, well, "Destiny, destiny, no escaping, that's for me!"

A reboot of this series might very well be warranted, in fact. If the original is set back at the time of Shelley's story, that gives writers a potential two hundred years of successive generations to play with, and all sorts of permutations to bring into the story. Perhaps a World War II era story, where a refugee Frankenstein works with the American government to make an atomic Monster? A Women's Lib Frankenstein who's tired of the lack of respect her female mad scientist ancestors have gotten? Frankenstein in the Great Depression, cobbling together a lab without the family resources? And at the back of it all, the original Monster, always there, always returning...it seems to be a storytelling engine ripe with possibilities, even beyond the ones already explored. And more than likely, it's one we'll see someday. Like its central character, people are always resurrecting the Frankenstein concept.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not Quite As Good As Scented Candles

Just a note to explain that posting might be light for a bit, as my computer now gives off a scent somewhat like burning plastic while running, and that can't be good.

December of 2008 seems to be out to get me...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: SOAP

(or "Confused? You Won't Be, After This Week's Column")

When it comes to needing a storytelling engine, there's nobody quite in the same position as a soap opera. I've talked in the past about the volume of stories needed for a monthly comic or a weekly TV show or a series of movies, and how a good storytelling engine can help provide ideas to a writer who desperately needs them (because deadlines don't wait for inspiration)...but a soap opera puts all of them to shame. Sixty minutes a day, every day, every week, every year for decades. (There are some soap operas that actually predate television.) Even granted that most soap operas will stretch out a plotline over multiple episodes to keep people tuning in tomorrow, that's a heck of a lot of ideas.

When you realize that, it's not too surprising that soap operas get so bizarre, so quick. Evil twins? Alien abductions? Affairs, cults, returns from the dead, ghosts and hypnosis and amnesia and murders? Some soap operas have all of the above in one episode. The soap opera is the storytelling equivalent of mulligan stew, where everything and anything that can be used will be used.

And it's that approach that forms the basis for the series "SOAP", which ran for four seasons in the late 70s/early 80s. It's kind of difficult to call it a parody, since parodies are generally over-the-top versions of the source material, and it's frankly impossible to be more over-the-top than a typical soap opera. Let's call it a soap opera with jokes. But whatever you call it, "SOAP" tried to consciously emulate the chaotic, borderline absurd atmosphere that soap operas have adopted more or less out of necessity. They crammed as many soap opera standards into the opening set-up as they could (a rich family, a poor family, marital infidelity, impotence, mob connections, and a gay son, although "SOAP" decided to be more open about that one than any of the soap operas that preceded it...which means that "SOAP" actually gave soap opera writers a whole new area to be convoluted in. Wow.)

Then it was just a case of grabbing whatever soap opera tropes came to mind and slotting them in as fast as the plot would allow. Demonic possession? Got it. Amnesia? Got it. Alien abductions? Got it. Long lost secret sons and missing mothers? Got it. Characters having affairs with convicts on the run from the law while on the rebound from their affair with a married congressman? Got it. Distilling the forty years of traditional soap opera plotlines into a single half-hour weekly series gave the writers of "SOAP" more to do than they could ever fit into four years of their series, which may be why "SOAP" ends on a cliff-hanger. (Or it may just be time-honored tradition; a good soap opera never wraps everything up. You have to end it on a shocker to keep people coming back.)

The particular storytelling engine of "SOAP" gave its writers two key advantages when coming up with stories; one, they were working with source material that had already churned out loads of potential storylines to parody, and two, they were working in a genre that held, as one of its genre conventions, that no plot twist was ever too unbelievable to be used. These two things combined meant that "SOAP" just needed to keep delivering the jokes, because the writers never had to worry about their characters (a man who talks to his ventriloquist's dummy?) or their storylines (Jessica falls in love with a South American revolutionary?) becoming too implausible to fit. It was a godsend for any comedy writer.

But the truly important thing about "SOAP", and by extension about soap operas, storytelling engines, and indeed writing in general, is--

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Strange and Profound Moment

Oddly enough, the quarter I used in the vending machine the other day contained spoilers for the book I'm reading right now.

Okay, I'll explain that one. I'm in the middle of reading 'Team of Rivals', by Doris Kearns Goodwin (which should make my sister very happy if she reads this, because she gave the book to me last Christmas and has been patiently waiting for me to get to it.) It really is every bit as good as my sister told me it would be, a compelling and electric story that seems more relevant than ever right now, and I've been devouring it as fast as one really can devour an 800+ page book at work.

And it's really good stuff. Goodwin makes you feel like this is recent history, not just something out of a dusty old book. It's a chronicle of turbulent, violent times in our nation's history, when you could feel the stormclouds gathering on the horizon every day and the idea of the United States of America seemed to actually be in danger. Just the thought of America collapsing seems alien and terrifying now, but a hundred fifty years ago, it was a real and tangible possibility, and Goodwin explains it in clear and intelligent terms to the reader.

I had gotten up to about 1856 in the book, when Lincoln was running for Senate against Stephen Douglas (when the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates happened.) The pivotal event in all this was the adoption of the so-called "LeCompton Constitution", where a bunch of pro-slavery Kansans got together and drafted a Kansas state constitution that was (surprise, surprise) pro-slavery, and shot it off to the President for ratification without really checking to see with the rest of the state as to whether or not this was actually a good idea. President Buchanan said it sounded like a great idea, because President Buchanan was pretty much willing to say and do anything to keep the South happy at that point, but even guys like Stephen Douglas called shenanigans on the LeCompton Constitution, vowing to fight it and not let it get through Congress.

And that was when I set the book down to go grab a soda. And when I reached into my wallet and pulled out a quarter, it was a Kansas state quarter. Just below the name of the state was the year it entered the Union, 1861. Which meant that the Lecompton Constitution couldn't have been ratified, meaning that Kansas must have entered the Union as a free state. (It would have been nice to get a spoiler warning on my spare change...)

And it just hit me that history really is everywhere around us. We are steeped in the past, so thoroughly that we frequently fail to notice it, but the stories of our lives are intertwined inextricably with those of the people who came before us. The tiny little details we barely notice some days are the stories of triumph and tragedy, of heroism and villainy and blood and sorrow and joy and wonder, the stories of our parents and their parents and their parents before them. The quarter that I spent in a vending machine contained the tale of men and women who moved halfway across the country to fight and die for their beliefs about freedom, if anyone took the time to listen to it. It was almost a little scary to think that everything would be like that if you looked at it from the right perspective.

I think that's part of why I enjoy learning new things so much. It makes the everyday world a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Critic

(or "Dumpy Guys Are A Tough Sell")

On paper, the ABC (and later Fox) series "The Critic" seems like it should have run for a long time. The creative team behind it shares a lot of names with the seemingly-immortal "Simpsons", it's got a pretty familiar name as the lead in Jon Lovitz, and the storytelling engine feels remarkably strong for a "workplace sitcom", especially an animated one. Sitcoms set in an office (or a TV studio) that center on the inter-personal dynamics of the (generally quirky) characters who have to work together despite their various dysfunctions, tend to reach a point where it's hard to keep finding things for them to do that aren't repetitive; the good ones, like 'Cheers', work around this problem by having a flow of guest-star and semi-regular customers to keep things fresh, while the bad ones just embrace repetition. (I'll leave it up to you to fill in the blank here with your own most-hated sitcom.)

By focusing primarily on one character, film critic Jay Sherman, "The Critic" works around this problem by expanding to his family and romantic life as well as his job, and showing all the ways those intertwine. He has to deal with an egomaniacal boss (who is wonderfully played by Charles Napier as a crazed Ted Turner), a frustrating and emotionally distant family (with the exception of his little sister, who looks to him for guidance), and the fallout from his disastrous first marriage. Each element provides fodder for one or more stories above and beyond the typical "workplace" drama, which is also present (and it helps a lot that the choice of "film critic" as job allows for plenty of gags about the entertainment industry, from brief gag movie clips to whole episodes revolving around a spat between Ebert and Siskel.)

So why, with all the talent behind it and all the opportunities available to it, did "The Critic" fail? Even a spot just in front of 'Home Improvement' couldn't help it on ABC, and even a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" couldn't save it on Fox. (And incidentally, that's not a good question to bring up to Matt Groening. Trust me on this.) What made "The Simpsons" into a huge success, and "The Critic" into an obscure cult series?

We have to consider the setting to be a culprit; unlike "The Simpsons", which takes place in a deranged vision of Anytown USA, "The Critic" sets itself in New York City and is squarely cosmopolitan. From a storytelling angle, this works great. New York becomes a character in its own right in the series, with the atmosphere of the city informing every episode in all sorts of ways that show that more than a few New Yorkers worked in the writing room. But to a non-Manhattanite (yes, we do exist!), these elements worked to exclude potential viewers instead of draw them in. It's sort of like Woody Allen's films, which work well in critics' circles but never seemed to make a ton of money in nationwide release.

A comparison to Woody Allen also brings us to the key point that made "The Critic" a tough sell; it's a self-consciously intellectual comedy about an intellectual character (how many sitcoms are about Pulitzer Prize-winners?) In a country like America, which has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, that's a tough sell in and of itself. But more than that, "The Critic" is a comedy about failure, about a single guy who stays single due to his lack of confidence (and looks and virility and savoir faire...) Despite the seeming attractions of the concept, audiences don't tend to want to watch the lives of people who are even worse off than they are, especially not one who seems to be mired in failure. The series attempted to fix that when it moved to Fox, adding Park Overall's "Alice Tompkins" character as a love interest, but by then, the tone of the series had already been set in the minds of its potential viewers. And so Jay Sherman, like Woody Allen, remains an acquired taste on DVD instead of an enduring icon like Homer Simpson. (Hmm...so maybe "dumpy" isn't that tough a sell after all...)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Review: The Best of Rifftrax Shorts Volume One

Those of us who are fans of the classic series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" know that some of the best comedy came from their riffing on those old public domain "educational" films, the kind of thing that your teacher would show in class to kill twenty minutes when they needed to grade papers (or were hung over.) These lessons on good citizenship, the virtues of listening to your teacher, and the need to avoid drugs always seemed to be just perfectly deranged in such a way that lent itself to MST3K's commentary. Sometimes it was the bizarre obsessions of the characters in the film, who seemed utterly devoted to springs or workplace safety or watching out for trains ("Why don't they look?") Sometimes it was the worldview of the shorts, which seemed so relentlessly cheerful that dark humor was just about the only defense. And almost always, it was the fact that cheap public domain educational films hired hilariously bad actors.

MST3K has been off the air for almost ten years now, and the last three seasons of the show on the Sci-Fi Channel rarely featured short films. The fine folks at Rifftrax have noticed this gap and have been producing downloadable media files of short films, complete with mockery, but for those of us who like to watch these things on TV, the old-fashioned way, it's been a long drought between goofy short films with built-in heckling.

So it's nice to see Mike, Bill and Kevin returning to the one part of the MST3K oeuvre that hasn't been covered by MST3K.com and Cinematic Titanic by releasing a DVD that collects their available-for-download short films (one that you can buy here, if my review makes you inclined to do so.) This DVD collects nine of their short films, and I gotta say, there are some instant classics in there. "Drugs Are Like That", "Down and Out", and "Patriotism" each proudly carry on the tradition of shorts like "Mr. B Natural" and "Why Study Industrial Arts?" (and trust me, if you're a fan of the old MST3K series those things would mean something to you.) The other shorts are great too, but those three probably make it worth buying right there. And as an additional bonus, the menus play three of the songs that Mike, Bill and Kevin wrote as the Rifftones for QuickStop Entertainment's "Song Fu" competition.

The DVD also includes an all-new short done exclusively for the DVD, and while "Shake Hands With Danger" is just as funny as the other eight (and probably funnier than "The Trouble With Women", the weakest of the nine), my only advice to the Rifftrax crew would be to go ahead and leave off the "digital avatars" when it comes time to release a Volume Two. (Which I, for one, would love to see...) They're pretty much unnecessary (the first eight shorts don't have them, and I didn't find myself missing them) and they were actually a little distracting, since the short had to be resized and played on a smaller screen-within-a-screen so that we could see the CGI riffers. Nice idea, worth trying, but it's not needed. Next time just have a brief live-action introduction from the actors, and call it good.

But trust me, that minor quibble doesn't in any way compromise my basic point: Great DVD, well worth buying.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Storytelling Engines: George Romero's "Dead" Films

(or "The Purest Example Ever")

Normally, when I talk about a series' storytelling engine, what I'm really doing is trying to take a look at a long-running (or occasionally short-running) series from a different perspective. Instead of just seeing the elements of the series as part of the story the writer is telling, I'm looking at them as story-generating components--the supporting cast fulfills this function, the setting adds this potential, the protagonist moves the plot this way, and so on. But it's very rare that I think that writers consciously consider their status quo as a machine that generates plots.

In the case of George Romero's seminal zombie movie series ("Night of the Living Dead", "Dawn of the Dead", "Day of the Dead", "Land of the Dead", "Diary of the Dead"), though, that's pretty much exactly what they are. Romero starts with a set of postulates that function as his "engine", and then takes other stories and runs them through the engine to see what the result will be. It's a storytelling engine that takes the world as it is, applies a major change, and observes the logical result.

The change is, of course, the dead coming back to life. Romero postulates an event (never explicated, but hinted as some sort of radiation wave released by a returning satellite) that causes every recently-deceased corpse in the world to re-animate and seek out living humans with an instinct to consume their flesh. (Their bite is invariably lethal, although Romero never makes it clear whether this is an effect of their status as zombies, or just due to the normal infections that would result from being bitten by a septic, rotting corpse.) They retain traces of their former personality, but generally have limited intelligence and diminished physical capacity (they're slower, but stronger.) Being dead, they're pretty much immune to pain, and the only way of permanently killing them is with damage to the head. But more importantly, the event affected living humans as well, even if it doesn't show. Anyone who dies in the series re-animates within minutes of their death as a zombie, unless that death is due to head trauma.

Romero's movies (and the various comic and novel spin-offs) focus on the consequences of this event for different groups. He never returns to the same set of protagonists (which allows him a lot of freedom when it comes to killing off characters), but the world is always the same. Humans find ways to survive the zombie apocalypse, some of which are co-operative (as in the small community of survivors in "Land") and some of which are competitive and counter-productive (as with the nihilistic end to "Dawn".) Different people cope with the psychological stress of the event in different ways (most of which aren't good--if Romero's movies have a common theme, it's that people tend to come unglued in crisis situations.) And the zombie horde always gets larger--in fact, with the span of time separating the movies, the size of the zombie horde provides the only definitive timeline for the series. "Diary" might look like 2005 and "Night" might look like 1968, but the two both occur early on in the zombie plague.

Romero's "zombie rules" provide a very interesting storytelling engine, precisely because they're the only real element of an engine with very loose continuity from installment to installment. This faithfulness to the rules has meant that the entire zombie sub-genre of horror has found itself defined by Romero's rules and the ground-breaking films that provided them, to the point where many zombie movies are essentially Romero movies in all but name. Some of them are loving homages, like "Shaun of the Dead", others are rip-offs, like "The Dead Next Door", and still others are deliberate reactions against or alterations of the Romero rules, like "Return of the Living Dead" or "28 Days Later" (or, for that matter, the James Gunn/Zack Snyder remake of "Dawn of the Dead".) But the Romero rules now provide a practically inescapable framework for everyone following in Romero's footsteps, a storytelling engine that has escaped its creator and run wild throughout the genre. Its simplicity is also its strength, something that is constantly proved with each new zombie movie, comic, or book that comes out.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Clone Saga Finally Makes Sense! (Sort Of...)

So recently, MightyGodKing.com did a post on the aftermath of "One More Day", and that got me thinking about that controversial storyline once again. You know, the one where Aunt May was on her deathbed, and Peter and Mary Jane made a deal with Mephisto; save her life, and we'll agree to forget that our marriage ever happened. And apparently, MJ added a rider to the deal that caused everyone to forget that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. And also, apparently, Mephisto added a twist of his own, bringing back long-time Spidey ally/villain/supporting cast member Harry Osborn, who believes himself to have been "in Europe" all this time. (Although Marvel is claiming that there's a "completely logical, non-magical, and totally plausible way he came back from the dead", they said that about Norman, too.)

Which is where the thunderbolt hit. Doesn't this all sound a bit...familiar? Peter's in a disastrous situation in his life due to a recent shocking personal revelation that he (and the editors) regret, there's a life-changing event that seems to age the character, and Aunt May dies. Then, suddenly, that life-changing event is spontaneously undone, the recent shocking revelation is reversed, Aunt May comes back to life...and an Osborn wanders in, saying, "Oh, I've been in Europe all this time. But I certainly was alive!"

What if Peter and MJ made a deal with Mephisto off-panel during the Clone Saga? It'd be after "Maximum Clonage", at a point where Aunt May was dead, MJ was pregnant, and Peter had been definitively proved to be the clone and Ben Reilly the original article. Mephisto shows up, offering a deal: He'll resurrect Aunt May, bring her back to life hale and hearty, but in return, Peter and MJ aren't allowed to know their child exists. She'll live, she'll grow up happy and healthy and hearty with a good foster family, but her parents will never know of it.

After a long, grim discussion, they agree, but MJ secretly adds her own twist to the deal: If he can alter reality to make Aunt May live, he can alter it to make Peter the original and Ben the clone. "Sure," Mephisto says, grinning from ear to ear...

And he changes reality by bringing back Norman, and making him the agency of all the alterations. Suddenly, Peter's the original, Aunt May's death was faked, the baby is stolen and claimed as stillborn, and there's the Green Goblin, behind it all. And Mephisto expects to get all the pain and misery he can reap out of the deal, as Peter is tormented by loss after loss and the Green Goblin gets his revenge.

But it doesn't work as well as he'd hoped, because Peter and MJ lean on each other as a source of strength through it all. Mephisto realizes that to really crush Peter's spirit, it's not enough to take away his daughter; he needs to take away his wife, too. And so he arranges things in such a way that Aunt May winds up on her deathbed again...

Am I crazy, or does this actually make a ton of sense?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Storytelling Engines: James Bond

(or "The Dreaded Reboot")

Even its detractors would have to admit that the James Bond film series is a genuinely astonishing achievement. Even the most popular movies die off after five or six sequels (horror icons like Freddy and Jason managed eight to ten), but James Bond's 22nd "official" film is in theaters now, and they're already getting started on Number 23. The series really does seem to be an "evergreen" franchise, having outlasted five of the actors who played the part (not counting the Niven Bond, the Sellers Bond, the Woody Allen Bond...) and the author who wrote the series of books it was based on.

Of course, those same detractors might also argue that the Bond movies are more of a formula than a storytelling engine; after an exciting opening set-piece, Bond meets with M and learns of some threat to the free world, then goes and gets interesting gadgets from Q (an element played down in recent movies, as the real-world spy technology has essentially caught up with Bond's MI6 boffins). He goes off and investigates, meeting beautiful women, getting into an exciting chase and evading at least one elaborate death-trap, before fighting the villain in an action-packed climax. That sums up the plot of most Bond movies and books (although it should be noted that Ian Fleming's novels were far less gadget-heavy and more cerebral, playing to the strengths of the printed page instead of the big screen.)

But the Bond formula offers plenty of flexibility; as a jet-setting spy, he has his choice of world locations from Jamaica to Russia to New Orleans, and "chase scenes" and "death-traps" and "gadgets" can mean anything from le parkour foot-races to elaborate space battles, depending on the particular era of the series. Bond films don't so much follow a formula as create one; our whole popular perception of the "spy movie" is moulded by the Bond films, whether imitating them, spoofing them (yes, hello, there, Austin, in the back) or reacting against them, as with John le Carre's spy novels (which have themselves been adapted for the screen.)

The flexibility of the Bond formula for the writer, though, is different from the flexibility of the Bond formula in the eyes of the audience. Writers might insist that there's always something new to be done with a glamorous super-spy who needs to save the world from a crazed madman's evil scheme, but when the audience stops being able to tell one Bond film apart from another, it's time to employ a strategy loved by some and hated by others: The "reboot".

Reboots are generally employed very late in the life of a storytelling engine, usually after the engine has been partially or totally ruined by bad writing decisions that have crippled its ability to function. Either so many elements have been added that only fanatical followers of the series can understand all the layers of complications obscuring the original, entertaining core concept (the Superman Emergency Squad, the bottle city of Kandor, New Krypton, super-pets, and a dozen types of Kryptonite) or else too many important elements have been destroyed/permanently altered due to a lack of foresight on the part of the writers and editors (the deaths of the Joker, the Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, and the lead character and entire supporting cast of 'Aquaman'.) Usually, the blame for this lies with the editors; writers tend to have their hands full thinking of story ideas (that is, after all, the point of a storytelling engine, to help the writers think of ideas) and it's the editor's job to evaluate their impact on the series.

The point is, when the series gets so completely written into a corner that you can't tell any more stories, you "reboot", starting over at the beginning, clearing the decks of all the baggage that's accumulated over the years, and going back to the core concept. Long-term fans tend to dislike it, because the root word of "fan" is "fanatic", and fanatical followers of a long-running series tend to enjoy all the baggage as much as they do the core concept, but a well-executed reboot can win over skeptical fans. It also tends to bring in new fans, who relish the chance to get in on the ground floor of the next generation of the series. (Of course, that next generation will usually have baggage of its own, not to mention the problem of new writers who try to bring back that old baggage because they're fans themselves--Ultimate Stryfe and Ultimate Onslaught, anyone?--but a reboot at least offers a chance at some fresh stories.)

But how does that relate to James Bond? After all, there's no complex continuity in the Bond films--they've changed lead actors five times, and nobody except George Lazenby noticed. There aren't any damaging decisions to undo; every Bond film is pretty self-contained, sharing very few recurring characters...unless you argue that the introduction of John Cleese as "R", or Felix Leiter losing a leg are "damaging decisions", really, any Bond film can serve as an introduction to the series. Even the chronology is loose, vague and unimportant to the films; Bond has moved from Cold War politics to a post 9/11 world, and all that's changed is what country the villain is working for.

A soft continuity demands a soft reboot, and that's exactly what "Casino Royale" is; it doesn't so much erase the previous movies as gently ignore them. It could be a flashback--after all, Bond movies seem to take place in a sort of ever-present "now", so a flashback film that seems to post-date the movies it's set before seems kind of appropos. It could be a reboot--sure, M is the same character as in 'Goldeneye', but Bond films have pretty short memories, so why not? It could just be another stylistic shift, the same as occurred from 'Moonraker' to 'For Your Eyes Only', or from 'A View To A Kill' to 'The Living Daylights'. Since the Bond films are fairly chameleonic in tone (as all long-running series tend to be), it's not too surprising to see shifts like that.

Ultimately, the much-debated Bond reboot is really just another way for the series to adapt in order to stay relevant, something all truly effective storytelling engines do. Times change, and a timeless series isn't so much one that fits the changing times as one that changes with the times. Daniel Craig is the Bond that fits this era; he's a rebooted Bond, yes, but in a sense, they all are.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Essential Update '08

That's right, it's that time of year again, time for me to pick my favorite series that Marvel needs to collect in big five-hundred page chunks for our viewing pleasure. (Because I sincerely hope I've managed to infect at least one or two people with my love of great big cheap "readers' editions" of Marvel's classic series.)

So how did Marvel do, off of last year's picks? Um...not so much of the good, really. In the sense that they didn't print very many new series at all. We got plenty of continuations of older stuff, like more Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, but the only new series to be printed were the 'Rampaging Hulk' and 'Captain Marvel' collections, and while I won't knock those, they weren't on my list. So let's go over the list again, with extra special begging and pleading this time...

15. The Champions. I suspect that this one won't ever get a release, since it's out in the "Classic" format, and since the rights situation is so confusing, and since 'The Order' got canceled (does that prove that there's no viability to the 'Champions' franchise, since it got canned, or that there is, because they couldn't call it 'Champions' for rights purposes?) Still, with a Hercules series and a Ghost Rider series running right now, there's a slim chance we could see a collection of a book that contains both characters.

14. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Another one where the ship might have sailed; Shang-Chi did pop back up again in 'Heroes for Hire', but that book didn't even last a year, so the character's returned to comic book limbo for a time. Still, with Brian Michael Bendis' crush on the 70s being what it is, I wouldn't be surprised if he joined the Avengers along with Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Howard the Duck.

13. Micronauts. Again, I don't even know who has the rights to the Micronauts right now, so this could be a plea to Devil's Due or Dynamite for all I know. But hey, Dark Horse is reprinting 'Savage Sword of Conan', so clearly the "giant reprint book" idea is catching on industry-wide...

12. Adam Warlock. He's back, he's in the new Guardians of the Galaxy (which seems to be fairly popular), why not reprint his older stuff? This is the kind of synergy that a company with a large backlist should be taking advantage of, reprinting their older material to build interest in their new stuff, and simultaneously getting fans of the new stuff to buy reprints of the backlist (which are low cost to produce, since you've already paid the writers and artists.)

11. New Warriors. They really should have done this one last year, in order to maybe build up some sort of buzz for the new 'New Warriors' title (actually, it's the fourth 'New Warriors' series--the New New New New Warriors?) Now they're canceling that series, so that dims the chances of seeing any old 'New Warriors' for the upcoming year. Oh, well. Any title that's had three relaunches is bound to have a fourth.

10. Spider-Man 2099. Really, all the 2099 series should probably be collected, but Spidey 2099 was the best of the lot; Peter David really enjoyed his time writing this one, and it shows. Sure, it's a little bit obscure, but can it really be any more obscure than the Living Mummy, Brother Voodoo, or Gabriel the Devil Hunter? (I don't even know who that last one is, and I've got every single volume of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe.)

9. Power Pack. The lack of this one continues to surprise the heck out of me. It's got name recognition, it's got plenty of guest-stars, it's a relatively self-contained and popular title with a long run...really, I honestly don't know what they're waiting for here. It's easily the most obvious choice on this list, even if there are others I'd want more.

8. West Coast Avengers. I can only assume Marvel's trade paperback department is currently committing ritual seppuku for knowing that there is a comic book series out there in which Hawkeye leads a team of Wonder Man, Iron Man, Tigra and Mockingbird, and not releasing it in collected format for the American reading public to enjoy. Shame, really. They were nice people.

7. Alpha Flight. Sure, we all know that Marvel has never been able to successfully recreate the popularity of the early 1980s Alpha Flight, despite attempted relaunch after attempted relaunch. But really, isn't that actually an even better argument in favor of reprinting the classic John Byrne-era series?

6. ROM. I've heard some rumors recently that we might see a ROM revival, spearheaded by Hasbro. Could this mean that the adventures of the Greatest Spaceknight will no longer languish in Marvel's forgotten vaults, but will instead be told in glory? We can but hope.

(Seriously, these were some great comics. It really did feel like an epic war, complete with a grand conclusion that spread through all of Marvel's books that month as the Dire Wraiths made their last great attack on the human race. It's a shame that rights issues have held reprints of this series up.)

5. Quasar. Another character who's currently in the Guardians of the Galaxy...umm, sort of. It's actually a lesbian alien daughter of Captain Marvel with the same name and powers as the Quasar whose book I want to see reprinted. That's not, um, convoluted or anything, is it?

4. New Mutants. Okay, remember what I said about 'Power Pack' being the most obvious title for an Essential edition? Kidding. It's actually 'New Mutants', which was as popular as any of the mutant books, tied into the other X-series frequently, and formed a cornerstone of mutant continuity for almost a decade. Let me put it this way--the Essentials of X-Men and X-Factor are already up to about issue #75 of where 'New Mutants' would be, complete with numerous dangling plotlines that get resolved within that book's pages. This one is a frustrating missing chapter for any X-fan.

3. Excalibur. This one is a lot less necessary than 'New Mutants', because it was pitched at the time as a "casual" book for X-fans who were sick of having to follow three series' worth of continuity. But that's exactly what would make it so nice for the purposes of reprinting; there's a nice, clean through-line of story that involves very little tying-in and crossing-over. (There's also a long, ugly stretch of fill-ins and weak writing between Claremont's departure and Alan Davis' run as writer, but hey, that's why they're cheap, folks.)

2. Guardians of the Galaxy. Look, there is a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' series going right now! It is very popular! It features numerous references to the classic series that I want to see reprinted! This is about as easy a decision as you can make, Marvel! Heck, you can start with the 70s origins of the team to keep Bendis happy! Please!

1. What If...? This is clearly pretty popular, as there are 190 issues available for collection already and they still do one-shots, specials, and limited series based around the concept to this day. I know I'd love to see them collected in big 500-page chunks, and I hope that I'm not alone. Because if I am, you'll see this one again next year in the top spot.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Firefly

(or "The Real World Tells Stories Too")

(And a hearty "welcome back!" to all the Joss Whedon fans who visited my blog!)

Whenever people try to describe Joss Whedon's 'Firefly' to someone who hasn't seen the series yet, the inevitable term they use is, "It's a Western in space." Which is true enough as far as it goes; any series that has an episode with the heroes smuggling cattle to another planet definitely earns the title "Western in space" pretty definitively. But when he came up with the idea for 'Firefly' and its storytelling engine (TV series are always very concerned with storytelling engines, because TV series look at 100 episodes as a minimum benchmark for success), Whedon didn't just decide to combine the tropes of the Western genre with the tropes of the science-fiction genre. He used the reality of the American frontier, rather than the fiction of the Old West, as his model to create a storytelling engine.

Noticing how involves a quick history lesson. What we think of as "the Old West", with gunslingers and bank robbers and grizzled settlers and sheriffs who were the only law in their town and madams with a heart of gold, et cetera, was a product primarily of the Civil War. There was settlement of the West prior to the Civil War, of course, but when the Confederacy collapsed, many of the former Confederate soldiers who didn't want to live under a government they'd just spent four years fighting drifted westward, where the United States' authority was minimal and they could use their military experience to make a living in a lot of not-particularly-legitimate ways. This meant living a lot rougher, but again, four years of being in a war had left them with different standards as to "civilized life" than the average person.

These semi-lawless veterans flooded into an already not particularly lawful part of the country that was still awash with gold prospectors and settlers who were also leaving the civilized parts of America for their own reasons (the Mormons also moved west into Utah during this period.) This created an unusually anti-authoritarian, sometimes violent society...one which was within the borders of the United States, and which the federal government had to tame if they wanted to truly become a continental government. (And one which, arguably, they never managed to completely conquer--many states in the western part of the US remain firmly libertarian and anti-authority, although the streak seems to have been put to positive uses for the most part.)

So this was the model that Whedon used for 'Firefly'. The conflict between the Sino-American Alliance and the "Browncoats" (and note that Whedon has always been vague about the exact causes and ideals of the Browncoats--Mal, of course, simply says they were for "freedom", but just about everyone thinks they're fighting on the right side) is an analogy for the Civil War, and Mal is one of the many disaffected veterans of that war who moves out to the frontier. The societal model for 'Firefly' feels real because it is real. It's got the kind of logic that's been tested by history. Writers should never feel afraid to borrow from history, because it's the only kind of plagarism that audiences admire. *rimshot*

Other elements of the Western in 'Firefly' are born out of economic logic. Sure, you could probably use a futuristic hover-buggy to ride around in, but if fuel is short, a horse is cheaper to feed. Laser pistols? A fancy toy for the rich, and a bullet kills just as sure as amplified and focused light. Why build tables out of wood instead of synthetics? Because it's cheap and plentiful and we've been working with it for the entire length of human history, and we know how to do it. The tropes of the Western aren't just there because Whedon thought they would look cool, they're there because they make sense within the story. (The only real "Western trope" is the idea of the Reavers as frontier savages, and Whedon deliberately subverts the idea in order to avoid the uncomfortable subtext of racism that's frequently present in Westerns.)

I've talked a lot about storytelling engines in this column (mainly because that's what it's about), but 'Firefly' does remind us that one of the quickest, easiest, most reliable storytelling engines comes from the world around us. Because the world is always full of stories, more than can ever possibly be told.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Long, Difficult Task Of Recycling My Old Ideas

So every so often, I think to myself, "Hey! Remember that 'Captain Action' open submissions call that Moonstone Books put out? Although my idea didn't win, being beaten out by longtime industry veteran Fabian Nicieza, I thought it was a pretty good concept. I should put the pitch up on my blog."

And then I can never find it on my hard drive, and I give up. So today, I'm not giving up! Today, you will hear about my idea for Captain Action: The Comic!

Obviously, this is based on the classic Captain Action toy from the 1960s, which was a superhero action figure that you could buy additional outfits for, with each outfit being the outfit of another superhero. So you'd buy the one figure, but you could make him look like Batman, Superman, the Lone Ranger, Aquaman, Buck Rogers...

I took this idea and ran with it for my series pitch. The idea was that it was set in a "developed" comics universe, one with lots of existing superheroes and supervillains, and that there was kind of a social connection between the superheroes. If you proved yourself, you were accepted into the superhero "community". And if you really proved yourself, you were put in touch with the superheroes' secret weapon--Captain Action. Nobody knew who he really was, but he was a master of disguise so brilliant that he could impersonate any superhero, powers and all.

Each issue would be a sort of superhero version of Mission: Impossible combined with the Unknown Soldier. One of the characters would be Captain Action, but the readers wouldn't necessarily know any more than the characters. Always, he'd have to impersonate his target flawlessly, lest he give away his own existence to the supervillain community. (One sample plot involved him having to impersonate a Superman-type hero in order to foil a death-trap that takes advantage of that hero's specific weaknesses...not only does he have to survive it, but he has to do so in a way that doesn't reveal that he's not that other hero.)

With each story, a few tiny clues as to Captain Action's real identity would be revealed, until about five years in, the readers would learn the truth: He's actually the future self of this world's most nefarious supervillain, a Doctor Doom/Lex Luthor megalomaniac who's constantly trying to rule the world. In the future, he would have tried to blackmail the world with a device that could shift the Earth out of its orbit...but in the resultant battle with Earth's heroes, he wound up actually using it, sending Earth spinning into space. In the slow, bitter apocalypse of the Earth's cooling off that followed, he realized the folly of his ways and spent his time as the last survivor building a time machine to undo his mistake by helping the heroes out.

That's not the whole thing, of course; I actually had about ten paragraphs describing sample plots, various scenarios that I thought would highlight the possibilities of a hero who could be anyone. But it was a while ago, and my memory's not perfect. This should give you the gist, though.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Indiana Jones

(or "Know Thyself")

Indiana Jones' storytelling engine was worked out by two absolute masters of their form while both of them were (arguably) at their creative peak, and it shows. (Yes, let's just get the gushing out of the way now.) It's a brilliant idea, one that's so great that it was either ahead of its time or else just copied a lot--take a particular era (such as the 1930s), and then take the tropes of its fiction and apply them as though the era really was like that. So just as Doctor Who pastiched the fictional image of Victorian London in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" instead of using the much duller actual London (hey, Doctor Who has always been ahead of its time, even for a time-travel show), George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to create a two-fisted pulp image of the times leading into World War II and make it seem real.

Part and parcel of this was their brilliant (again, gushing) decision to treat myths and legends as real (within the context of the entirely unreal 1930s they'd created for the series.) In the world of Indiana Jones, all the ancient relics and mysterious MacGuffins of all those pulps really did what they said they did, and a daring treasure hunter (let's face it, the "archaeology" thing is just a dodge) has to clash just as much with the supernatural as he does with fiendish death traps, cold-hearted Nazi seductresses, and decidedly unfriendly natives. (Which remains a problematic element for any story that pastiches the fictional tropes of another time--do you use story elements that have not aged well in terms of their racism and sexism, and hope that your audience is well-educated enough to understand the context of their usage, or do you eliminate them, cutting out a lot of the authenticity of your pastiche?)

So what we have in your basic Indiana Jones story, as generated by the engine, is a story set in the era of the pulps, using tropes and stock characters/settings generated by them, with supernatural elements usually added in (but not necessarily required)...and then overlaying that with a veneer of authenticity by a) researching the historical myths that are the basis for the supernatural elements (you'd be amazed at just how much work went into getting the bits about the Ark of the Covenant as close to "right" as they could), and b) having a lead character who's flawed and human in a way that pulp heroes tended not to be. (Anyone see Doc Savage whimpering in pain and saying, "It's not the years, it's the mileage?") And yet, it's important to note that for all of Indy's flaws, he's flawed in a human, likeable way. His original motivation for treasure hunting (he's a playboy professor who lives beyond his means and sells his finds to finance his lifestyle) is almost totally muted in the series as we see it on screen...and in books, comics, video games, et cetera.

Just a quick sampling of the books, comics, video games, et cetera bears this out. We see Indy searching for the fourth nail of Christ's cross, fighting zombi armies in Haiti, searching for Atlantis and the supposed lands inside a hollow Earth, fighting dragons, and duking it out with Tibetan telekinetics. He even met Dracula. This seems like a very sustainable engine.

So why is it that audiences seem so reluctant to embrace Indy's sequels? (For a given value of "reluctant"--it's not like the Indy movies don't make money.) Setting aside the books and comics and video games for the moment--those tend to be produced for the "fan", not the casual enthusiast--only two of the four movies have gotten a good critical response, and the "Young Indiana Jones" television series crashed and burned after just two seasons, a genuine shocker considering the high-profile talent working on it. The fourth movie, in particular, was thoroughly panned (despite, again, not having any problems making money.)

Looking at the movies that were loved and the ones that were merely tolerated, it's easy to spot why--just look for the ones that didn't use the storytelling engine. 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' skimped on its research, making up its MacGuffin (and not incidentally, falling on the wrong side of the "problematic" question mentioned above...all too often, it seems to use its pulp tropes as an excuse for racism, rather than attempting to examine the attitudes of the era it pastiches.) "Young Indiana Jones" skimps on the adventure--apart from one episode where Indy meets Dracula, most of the stories revolved around boringly educational meetings with historical figures and tame escapades in historical settings. There's no zip to them.

And 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'...the fourth Indiana Jones movie essentially tries to invent a brand-new storytelling engine built on the principles of the original, but using the tropes of 50s science-fiction films instead of 30s pulp films. Which is an interesting idea, and one that almost becomes necessary in order to continue using Harrison Ford as Indy (and let's face it, Ford's performance is 90% of what makes the character who he is; none of the other actors have ever managed to make the character work quite so well.)

But back when they were first considering the idea, Lucas and Spielberg had the option to use any era they wanted, and they chose the pulps of the 30s over the sci-fi 50s. Perhaps it was that Nazis made better bad guys than commies, perhaps it was because ancient relics were more exciting than flying saucers, perhaps it was just because Crash Corrigan was more fun than Flash Gordon, but for whatever reason, they saw that one era had more potential than the other for stories. Setting aside any question of whether Lucas and Spielberg have "lost it" over the decades, the storytelling engine they made the first time just worked in a way that the new one doesn't, which doesn't exactly bode well for attempts to make a fifth Indiana Jones movie. But the fundamental soundess of the original storytelling engine means that Indy books and comics, at least, can keep going strong for ages to come.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Trickle-Up Theory

I'm once again suffering from a head cold, which is my excuse this week for being a day late with my post (it's always nice when it's something tangible.) I'm going to just dip my toes into politics this week--I don't quite feel the need to wallow in it at the moment, because I think emotions are still running very high from a historic election and there's just no way to talk about it without someone being unhappy, but this is a bit more generic. Let's talk taxes.

We're all familiar with the "trickle-down" theory of economics, which is the idea that if you set government policies to benefit the rich (including, but not limited to tax rates), they'll have more money to invest in the economy, which creates jobs, which helps the poor make money. The benefits of the rich making more money "trickles down", you see.

But this ignores the basic rule of economics, which I am just now making up: In an environment of laissez-faire capitalism, money always flows from the poor to the rich, just like water always flows downhill. It's absolutely inexorable, because the rich have more money than they can ever spend, and the poor have to spend all the money they have.

This is really pretty obvious, easily supported by everyday observation and common sense. The richer you get, the more money you have, pretty much by definition. Income rises on an unlimited curve, whereas expenses don't--eventually, no matter how extravagant you are and how much you invest, you hit a point where new money you make just goes onto the pile. That money is removed from circulation--for all that it helps the economy, you might as well burn it.

Whereas on the low end of the curve, income matches or exceeds expenses all the time. This is what's known as "living paycheck to paycheck", and lots of middle and lower-class people do it, because there's always a car to fix or rent to pay or clothes to buy for the kids. And that money goes to the makers of the clothes...some of it to the individual workers who make them, who are themselves living paycheck to paycheck and spending money as fast as they make it, but some of it to the owner of the clothes factory, who is not living paycheck to paycheck. Everyone who's in the middle-class is spending money, everyone who is upper-class is hoarding money. Eventually, that money is bound to wind up in the hands of the rich, and pass out of circulation.

So what's needed is, yes, a "trickle-up" theory of economics. The rich need to be forced to get that money back into circulation, through policies that reward investment and punish large accumulations of capital. And yes, this does mean higher taxes on the rich, but the rich shouldn't care about this. That money will always come back to them. The government will spend that tax income to build roads (and who owns the construction companies?), make tanks and guns (and who owns the defense companies?), and aid banking, housing, and other industries (and yes, "industry" generally means someone well-off to own their own company.)

This is not socialism, this is simply tending the garden of capitalism. Farmers don't just rely on rain to water their crops, because they understand that water always flows downhill. They pump the water to where it needs to go. We need to irrigate the middle-class and keep it healthy, because they in turn support the rich on a sustainable basis. The rich can stay rich, but the mindless accumulation of capital is disastrous, in the long run, to the health of the economy...and that means they gotta spend money to keep making it. And if they won't do that voluntarily, then the government should help them out a little.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Correcting Popular Song Lyrics

I just wanted to take a moment and, as a public service, correct certain mistaken impressions members of the public might have gotten as a result of listening to popular songs on the radio. This is a minor but significant service I have chosen to perform from time to time, simply because radio remains the third or maybe fourth most popular medium of communication out there. (It definitely beats out carrier pigeons, at any rate.)

Today, I'd like to correct a misapprehension caused by lyrics in Natasha Bedingfield's song, "Unwritten", in which she sings, "Feel the rain on your skin/No one else can feel it for you..."

This is technically incorrect. A person with expert skills in butchery and tanning could, in fact, flay off a piece of your skin that would be extremely thin and, after tanning, quite supple. They could then find a sufficiently powerful rainstorm that the impact of the raindrops could be felt directly through the piece of thin leather. Naturally, this would wreck the material, so it could only be done once per piece of your skin that they felt the rain on, but they could nonetheless feel it for you.

Hopefully, this information arrives in time to be helpful.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Essential Halloween Viewing

So we're just about a week out from Halloween...and please don't come to my house trick-or-treating, as we're not giving out candy this year. Please don't blame me for that, though. I love to stay at home, with a bowl of candy by the door for the kids and a horror movie in the DVD player for the times between knocks on the door...but I'll be at work, and my room-mates have expressed a preference to instead hang out in the basement and play video games. Spoilsports.

But the question is, what horror movie would go into that DVD player if I wasn't stuck at work? I'm going to take a moment to suggest some personal favorites. Obviously, these are my own choices based on my own tastes in horror. I look for a fast pace--movies like 'Halloween' or 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre', where it takes a half hour to get to the first real scare, just bore me. I don't get hung up on wanting tons of plot, but I don't like movies that have plot holes so glaring I can't ignore them even if I try. And genre-blending films score bonus points. So with that in mind, here are my picks...and I'd be interested in hearing other suggestions (hint, hint, I've got a luvverly comments section just waiting for you to fill it up...)

1. The Evil Dead Trilogy. Honestly, I can't choose just one of these three. They're all brilliant, each in their own way. In terms of pure horror, the first one is probably the most effective; Raimi studied dozens of horror movies, figuring out how to make the leanest, meanest, most terrifying thriller he could, and it pays off. The second one is probably the best of the three, and the most influential--Raimi's use of motion in his direction and the way he mixed genres together show up in practically every modern movie, not just the horror flicks. And 'Army of Darkness' has all the best lines.

2. Slither. A vastly underrated horror flick that is, quite honestly, the best horror film of the last decade. (If not longer.) It's smart, it's funny, every actor in it gives a terrific performance that really lends believability to the whole story, it moves like a freight train, and it has the best gag reel of any movie you'll ever see. If you call yourself a horror fan and you don't have this DVD on your shelf, you should be ashamed.

3. The Holy Trilogy. Of course, by now it's "The Holy Pentalogy", but Romero fans tend to have Views on 'Land' and 'Diary'. (For the record, I love 'Land' unabashedly and in some ways, it's my favorite just for the upbeat ending...and 'Diary', while uneven as all hell, is tremendously entertaining at times and has the most badass deaf Amish farmer ever. Oh, and the most badass drama teacher, too.) But when zombie fans talk Romero, they mean 'Night', 'Dawn', and 'Day of the Dead'. Romero's not a perfect film-maker--he wears his politics on his sleeve, and his characters have a tendency to speechify instead of talking. But his movies have a sense of realism to them that makes the horror hard to shake. You feel like you're watching a documentary, and the effect haunts you long after the credits roll.

4. Flight of the Living Dead. This one is not a Romero movie--it's a straight-to-DVD slice of beautiful cheese. I'm not going to defend it as a quality movie, but it's wonderfully entertaining; the movie unapologetically loads up a plane full of stereotypes and then gets straight to the zombie action. Half the fun is predicting who's going to be zombie chow and in what order. Will it be the Pilot Who's On His Last Flight Before Retirement? Will the Golfer Who's Obviously Supposed To Be Tiger Woods get to use that putter on a zombie? Just how will the Amoral Scientist Who's Responsible For It All get his comeuppance? A wonderful guilty pleasure.

5. Jason X. And speaking of guilty pleasures...this one is one of those movies that nobody went to see because they knew it must be bad, but us secret fans know that it's the best of all the 'Friday the 13th' movies. It's got some great one-liners, and the "holodeck" sequence is the apotheosis of the entire series. (In order to distract Jason, the good guys program in a Crystal Lake simulation, complete with holographic teenagers who say, "Hey, do you want a beer? Or do you wanna smoke some pot? Or we can have premarital sex! We love premarital sex!" Instant win.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Brief Observation

No Storytelling Engine this week (on Monday, I was still in Atlanta, GA watching my flight get delayed, and things only got more fun from there) but I will blog a little, just to make a brief observation which some might claim has some connection to the current political process.

To wit, nobody who calls themselves a "maverick" is ever actually a maverick. Real mavericks don't call themselves mavericks, because they don't give a damn about what you think of them. They just go out and do things, and let other people worry about labels. A guy (or a gal, or a two-person combination of a guy and a gal whose names happen to fit conveniently on a yard sign) who says, "I'm a maverick" (or "we're mavericks", repeatedly in a vice-presidential debate for example) is desperately courting your opinion. And if he's that desperate for your approval, he's probably going to be desperate for someone else's. (Like, say, hypothetically speaking, a Republican President or a bunch of racist right-wing voters.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Out Of Town

Just wanted to drop a note to say I'll be out of town all next week and don't know how often I'll have Net access, so this blog might be fairly quiet for a bit.

Thanks for your patience!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Authenticity and the "Darkening" Of DC

So we've all heard about 'The Dark Knight', right? Grossed something like $500 million, critical and financial success, absolute blockbuster to end all blockbusters and DC's first real success in the movies since...well, arguably since 1989, when 'Batman' launched with a different Batman and a different Joker and a different director. Certainly, the biggest success DC has had since Marvel started absolutely cleaning up with their string of well-received hits. (And, okay, 'Elektra'.)

But the thing is, I think DC is taking away the wrong lesson from this. They're talking about how this proves "dark" superheroes sell, and how they're going to be doing more dark stories in their next several movies, and how this validates Dan DiDio's tenure at DC where he made a conscious decision to aim for a more "adult" audience. (Which has been a bit of a controversial point over the last few years, with both sides pulling out sales charts that support their case, and goalposts moving back and forth, and all the general fun you get from Internet debates. But I digress.)

Because I don't think that 'The Dark Knight' succeeded because it was "dark", I think it succeeded because it was real. It was heart-felt, to use an older term. Christopher Nolan felt genuinely, personally touched by some of the Batman stories he'd read (most obviously "The Killing Joke") and he told a Batman story that meant something to him, and that intensity, that depth of feeling resonated with his audience. The audience was willing to follow him to a very dark place for that story, because that's where the story led.

It's that last point that's key--"that's where that story led". The darkness in 'The Dark Knight' wasn't forced, it wasn't there for its own sake...it was there because Christopher Nolan told a story of moral ambiguity, of the specter of mindless chaos in a world still reeling from the 'War On Terror' (and no, Bush isn't Batman. Bush is Harvey Dent. But I digress again.) Nolan didn't tack on a sad ending and he didn't tack on a happy ending. He followed the story through to the ending it had to have.

Audiences can always smell when they're being manipulated, and just as surely, they can smell when they're not. Everyone who watched '28 Days Later', whether they loved the movie or hated it, all hated the ending, precisely because it pandered. The writers looked at the ending they had to have, with Selena and Hannah about to become the unwilling mothers of a new society while Jim was left to die, and it scared them, so they copped out. Even before they tacked on the uber-happy ending where Jim survived being gut-shot in the middle of nowhere, they backed away from the truth of what things were, and the audience knew it.

And DC has been doing just the opposite. They've been tacking on death and rape, blood and gore and misery and discord not because they're where the story has to lead, but because they think it sells. (And they're not the only ones--in fact, the single worst offender in this regard in the last decade has to be Penance, whose character can be summed up as "Dark Speedball". Does anyone think this was a deeply heart-felt change for this character?)

In the end, things have to be real. The audience will follow you if they're real, whether through darkness or light. We don't want sad endings or happy endings, we want true endings. We want our happiness to be earned, our sadness to feel honest. We want to be moved, not pandered to. And if DC can't understand that, then its next "dark" movie is going to feel more like 'Superman Returns' than 'The Dark Knight'...and it'll probably do the same kind of box office.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Highlander

(or "There Won't Be Only One")

'Highlander' is a relative rarity among storytelling engines, because it didn't start out as one. In fact, writer Gregory Widen turned in a script that seems to defy sequelization at all--it's the story of the final battle between a group of immortals that have lived in secret among the human race, summed up by the iconic line, "There can be only one!" (As an aside, it's important to note the difference between coming up with a sequel and coming up with a storytelling engine. Coming up with a sequel means finding the logical extension of a stand-alone story, while coming up with a storytelling engine involves setting up a premise that can generate multiple stories. It's the difference between 'Die Hard 2' and 'Dawn of the Dead'.)

But as the movie developed from a minor flop into a slow-burn cult hit, it became evident that "only one" wasn't enough. The movie developed a franchise that wanted more, and wouldn't take, "Everyone's dead except Connor!" for an answer. About the first attempts to develop the story into a storytelling engine, the film's theatrical sequels, well...the less said the better. They were slapdash, didn't fit the lyrical fantasy tone of the original, and they were stuck trying to tie into the ending of a film that was fairly definitive in establishing itself as the conclusion to the whole concept.

The TV series, though, took a different tack. TV writers are, by definition, good at creating storytelling engines, because they're all too aware of a) the challenges of writing twenty-two episodes of television on an enormously tight schedule, and b) the need to write five or six seasons in order to get the lucrative rewards of perpetual syndication (and DVD release, nowadays.) So they took the risky step of breaking down the 'Highlander' film to its component elements, finding those that would support a storytelling engine, and discarding the rest.

The first big one they let go was the protagonist. Connor McLeod was a spiky, alienated immortal burned out on caring about the mortals who lived and died all around him. His story was all about finding his ability to love again...and that's a wonderful plot for a one-time movie, but as open-ended TV series go, it doesn't work. (Plus, actor Christopher Lambert probably wasn't willing to commit to a weekly series.) So Connor gained a "cousin", Duncan, who was a bit more genial, connected to the world, and generally audience-friendly. (It says a lot, by the way, that despite only appearing together twice in the franchise, Lambert and Adrian Paul have a chemistry that easily convinces you that they spent lots of time together off-screen.)

The second thing that had to go was the Gathering. Again, this was just necessary to the development of a storytelling engine as opposed to a one-time story. The Gathering, and the final battle of all the immortals, is by definition the end of the story. (Unless you suddenly decide they're all aliens from the planet Geist or something.) Setting it in an "alternate universe" (the official explanation, never actually referred to onscreen) where immortals are more prevalent, and new ones appear all the time, gives the writers the chance to tell more stories than Widen's conception allowed. (The movie occurred in the series continuity, by the way, but Kurgan was just another nasty immortal dispatched by Connor, not the second-to-last of his kind.)

Which brings up another point; the series' mythos had to be widened to accomodate more stories. Some recurring villains had to show up, simply because it's hard to create a new villain every week (as touched on in the column on the Punisher); the organization of the Watchers was created to help create supporting allies and enemies, and various recurring foes like the Four Horsemen, Kalas, Ahriman, and Xavier St. Cloud helped keep the pressure off the writers. And of course, supporting characters, both mortal and immortal, generated stories of their own--Richie, Amanda, Joe, Tessa, the list goes on and on. (Mainly because the series wasn't afraid to kill off supporting characters.) Indeed, by Season Six, Duncan was barely featured in the series at all. (Primarily because Adrian Paul was already thinking of moving on.)

The revamped Highlander concept ran six series and spawned a further two movies (and several books and comics), a respectable run for any series but all the more impressive for a series that started with the end of the story. It's surprising, really, that it took until 2006 for the comic book to arrive, since a comic can conquer the last hurdle that the series had to being a true open-ended storytelling engine...comic book characters, unlike actors, never age.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Alternate Reality Sequel List

Have you ever noticed that there are some movies that you just want to pretend the sequels happened in an alternate reality? I don't mean that these sequels are bad...necessarily...you don't wish that the film never had a sequel at all...again, necessarily...but you just want to say, "No, that's not what really happened after the end of that movie. That's a fun 'What if?' question. The real ending to the movie is inside my head."

Because believing these sequels to be "real" (if you'll grant me the idea that these movies have a reality to us, even though we know them to be fictional--they're not literally true, but they matter on an emotional level) changes our viewing of the original, spoiling them just a tad. Nobody can cheer for Ripley saving Newt at the end of 'Aliens' when they know she's just going to die off-camera before the next movie starts. So I think we're allowed to cut the sequels out of the world of the original, and restore the original's happy endings to their former glory by deciding the sequels don't "count" in the same way as the original film does.

I'll give a few examples...say, five?

5. Austin Powers. This is the perfect example, in some ways. It's not that the sequels were terrible (although 'The Spy Who Shagged Me' really was, honestly.) It's that the first movie ends with Austin coming to terms with the demise of the 60s culture he represented, growing as a person, and settling down with Vanessa, who had grown to accept him as well. The next movie then opens with her dying, and just expects the audience to be fine with that. And I guess I can be, so long as we accept that the sequels are all just some alternate-reality Austin who shrugs off his wife's death in seconds and goes on to have a string of meaningless relationships (and unfunny sequels.)

4. Ghostbusters. Here, the sequel isn't even that bad. (It's not that good, either, but it's not bad.) But the whole exciting triumph of the heroes from the first movie is given a sour, unpleasant tone when we find out they were blamed for saving the world, driven into bankruptcy, and went their separate ways. As a parallel universe, it works. As a continuation of the first movie, it fails.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took Spielberg and Lucas twenty-seven years to figure out what movie audiences knew all along--Marion and Indy should have wound up together. (And they still didn't do a good job of showing it.) While the sequels and prequel have their merits, they're easier to watch if you just pretend they're fanciful "imaginary stories" and not continuations of the nigh-unto-perfect original film.

2. The Matrix. Arguably, the sequels don't even connect logically with the end of the original film; at the end of 'The Matrix', Neo has total, god-like control over the reality of the Matrix, and can alter it at will. In the next movie, he's a trench-coated Superman. Not only do you need to pretend the sequels happened in a parallel universe to make the original work, you need to imagine a wholly different original movie for the sequels to have a shot in hell of making sense.

1. Star Wars. This one might be a bit controversial, but I'm going to put it in, and here's why. When you watched the original 'Star Wars' movie, back before sequels and prequels and Expanded Universes and video games and metric tons of books, the world of 'Star Wars' existed entirely in your head. Every space in the film is filled in with your imagination--and part of the brilliance of the film is that there are so many spaces, so many clever hints at things that Lucas just leaves you to fill in yourself so that the world grows into you and you grow into it. The world of 'Star Wars' literally becomes a part of your imagination. Every kid in 1977 had a different idea of what the Clone Wars were, or how Darth Vader became evil, or how Luke's father died, or even just what those things in the cantina were called. And every movie, book, video game, and tie-in since then has replaced a bit of your imagination with someone else's. I want to be able to look at this movie and see it just for itself, to say, "No. It doesn't matter what someone else said, even if that someone else is George Lucas. This is what I think happened next."

Anyone got some of their own to add?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Futurama

(or "Packing Up The Shop")

Futurama, Matt Groening's second television series, suffered from a single great problem that afflicts all too many science-fiction/fantasy shows. It was on the Fox Network. (Rimshot.) The series' creators, all of whom had gained a lot of experience while working on the Simpsons, designed their series almost as an exercise in creating a good storytelling engine; the futuristic setting allowed for any number of stories set on any number of distant, quirky planets, and the delivery-service that the show centered on gave them a good reason for going there. Fry, as an unfrozen 20th century guy, served as a viewpoint character and a handy source of exposition for the strange world of the future, and all of the characters had their own private frustrations and unfulfilled desires that expressed themselves in comic ways (Fry's unrequited love for Leela, Leela's need to find her true parents, Zoidberg's desire for wealth and legitimacy, et cetera.) Really, you can go back through just about every column I've done, looking at things other series did right, and you'll find them expressed in Futurama at some point or another.

But unfortunately, Fox has a love/hate relationship with sci-fi series. The executives never got behind Futurama, never understood its appeal, and seemed to go out of its way to scuttle the show. By the time the fourth season rolled around, the show's creators knew that they were going to be canceled. This actually afforded them some unique opportunities--not totally unique, of course, as there have been other series that have had the time to wrap up their dangling plot threads, but certainly Futurama was part of an exclusive group. Their final season, produced with the threat of cancellation looming over their heads, explained Leela's parentage, gave Amy and Kif a family (albeit one that could be conveniently ignored in all future episodes) and in the final episode, showed Fry and Leela finally finding each other.

All of which changed the group dynamic pretty radically, of course. That wouldn't be a problem for most canceled shows--apart from a comic-book spin-off series that seemed set in a perpetual continuity twilight of "sometime before all the big changes happened", nobody really expected the series to come back. But this is the 21st century, the new Golden Age of archival fiction, and DVD sales forced Fox to sit up and take notice of the fan following of their canceled show. (All except those execs who were beaten to death and ground into a fine powder with a million uses, of course.)

The series revived itself with straight-to-DVD movies, and one of the interesting things to notice is the way that they set about finding ways to rejigger the character dynamics to something with a bit more long-term comedic storytelling potential. So Fry and Leela took a step back from the couple they were implied to be at the end of the series, Amy and Kif took steps both forward and back, and the next release will feature a return of Mom (of the Friendly Robot Company.) The shifts aren't dramatic--but they didn't have to be, since the writers had taken a little care to hedge their bets at the end of the series. (Other series, such as the classic Britcom 'Only Fools and Horses', took less care with their "permanent" endings, and had to take more drastic measures when the show unexpectedly returned.)

So what does this say about the storytelling engine of the series? Only that in the current era, when a series can slowly build demand through DVD releases, Internet communities, and word-of-mouth, it's wise to anticipate a return for your storytelling engine. Because nowadays, the only way you'll go away for good is if you're really out of stories to tell. And that's exactly what a good storytelling engine is supposed to prevent.

(And as a small, self-indulgent aside, this marks the 300th post for Fraggmented! I don't know how big an audience I have, but at least I'm persistent.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Theory Of Idea Consistency

So I've been reading 'The Making of Star Wars' and 'The Making of Indiana Jones' (both big, thick, meaty books that you could probably use for weight training), and it got me thinking a bit about George Lucas...and then I read 'When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?', one of George Carlin's last books, and I noticed something they had in common. They're both ferociously lazy. Lucas has had a downturn in quality ever since the early 1990s, and 'When Will Jesus...' reads like it wasn't edited at all. (Seriously, it reads like Carlin just typed until he'd gotten three hundred pages of words, and his editor just rubber-stamped it.)

And this got me formulating a theory. (Actually, a hypothesis, but I don't think we'll need to worry about the scientific community's opinions on this.) My theory is this: All creative people have roughly the same percentage of good ideas.

Now, that doesn't mean all creative people are the same; Lucas is an absolutely brilliant visionary, and anyone who doubts that should really read 'The Making of Star Wars' to see just how ahead of the curve he was, and just how much that movie transformed film-making as we know it. But the other thing you notice when you read 'The Making of Star Wars' is just how much he was throwing out. He was constantly redrafting and redefining and recreating the script from the frankly incoherent gibberish it started as into one of the truly timeless and enduring films of the 20th century. In other words, some people have better good ideas than others, some people have more ideas than others, some people's internal crap detectors are better than others, but everyone is churning out about the same percentage of good ideas.

This is the problem with guys who make it big, like Lucas and Carlin (and I'll toss in Frank Miller here, too, and I'm sure commenters can add to the list ad nauseum.) Everyone, no matter how brilliant, needs some help in sorting out the good ideas from the bad ideas. Nobody's crap detector is one hundred percent perfect. So when Lucas had to justify his every idea to a skeptical studio, he was forced to sharpen and trim and cut all the weak stuff out. When he had $200 million just lying around to make a movie with and a studio begging to distribute it sight unseen, he made a movie that was flabby, underthought, and with a lot of bad ideas overshadowing the good stuff. (And again, I say this as someone who really does think Lucas is brilliant, and it's one of the great tragedies of Hollywood film-making that 'Star Wars' soured him on directing for so long.)

Ultimately, what I'm saying is that there's a belief in the creative industries (film, prose, music, et cetera) that the vision of the artist is paramount, and that all oversight ever does is compromise it. Everyone wants to see the "Director's Cut", everyone complains about the editor butchering the work, everyone thinks that this story would be better if the artist was just left alone. But it's not true. For every one empty suit that just doesn't get it, there are a dozen talented editors and producers who can function as additional crap detectors, helping you sort your good stuff from your bad. And when you become too successful to listen to them, your work is bound to suffer.

Your work, that is. Everything I write is brilliant.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons

(or "And Then The Children Were Rescued By...Oh, Let's Say Moe.")

The storytelling engine of the Simpson family is a pretty familiar one to anyone who watches television. The average family with a not-so-average life is pretty familiar ground for television comedy, and has been ever since the days of 'I Love Lucy'. Matt Groening (who supposedly based the series on his own family) created a deceptively simple family structure that generates plenty of stories--the dumb-but-loveable dad, the mischievous-but-good-at-heart son, the intelligent-but-socially-awkward daughter, and the slightly-stir-crazy stay-at-home mom each have their own reasons to provide the writer with storylines (and hyphens, apparently.) Groening's main contribution to the genre was to open up the throttle slightly in a way that works well with the choice of cartoons as a way to deliver the series. Homer isn't just dumb, he's cartoonishly stupid. Bart isn't just mischievous, he's cartoonishly wicked, et cetera, et cetera.

The series developed the other elements of its storytelling engine over its first few seasons, bringing in supporting characters like Moe and Barney, settings like the nuclear power plant and the school, and gradually developing more ways to generate stories as it went on. This is pretty much par for the course with any sitcom (although as a cartoon, the Simpsons have the advantage of not having to worry about actor availability. You can develop a much larger supporting cast when they're all really Hank Azaria.) Again, this is nothing we haven't seen in any sitcom.

But all family sitcoms suffer from the same problem--there's only a limited number of stories you can tell that don't fundamentally break the status quo (and let's not forget, the "status quo" is simply the set of elements making up the current storytelling engine.) One of the key elements of a family sitcom is that in the end, despite the wacky adventures, the family finds a way to put things right at the end of every episode. The more wild the adventure, the harder it is to put things right, and so eventually sitcoms falter as they run out of new wacky adventures.

Which is where the Simpsons broke ranks, back in Season Five. Oh, sure, they'd had a few adventures that were a little outrageous, ones that maybe stretched the limits of the audience's belief that things would really be "back to normal", but the episode 'Homer Loves Flanders' marked a real departure in the series' whole direction. In it, Homer becomes best friends with annoying goody two-shoes Ned Flanders, and at the end of the episode, nothing occurs to break up their friendship. Indeed, they deepen their mutual respect for each other in the episode's climax, prompting Lisa to comment, "Is this the end to our wacky adventures?"

And then the episode ends with a coda, where "next week", Homer hates Flanders as if nothing had ever happened. From that point on, the Simpsons operates on the assumption that unless a future episode explicitly mentions a change to the status quo, it's assumed that everything simply resets back to the default state. So Apu and Manjoula really get married, because she shows up in later episodes, but Bart and Lisa don't wind up trapped on a desert island along with the whole class of Springfield Elementary.

This is a whole new kind of idea, a post-modern take on the storytelling engine that takes it for granted that the audience is not only familiar with the storytelling engine of the Simpsons, but the concept of a storytelling engine in general and the way that a sitcom works. It allows the writers much more creative freedom than the traditional sitcom--they don't have to come up with an ending that returns everything to normal, they just have to take their ideas as far as they can logically go, and let the audience's knowledge of the "sitcom rules" do the rest. Arguably, the series has overused the idea a bit, as it moves on into its twentieth season, but then again, the very fact that it even has a twentieth season, when such legendary sitcoms as 'The Cosby Show' and 'All In the Family' didn't even run for half that length, shows that the Simpsons' elasticity is one of the overlooked elements to their long-running sucess.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What It's Like To Be An American Right Now

It's like when you're in the last reel of a horror movie, and the surviving characters have almost made it back out of the house with the zombie psycho-killer in it, and you're trying to figure out if they're going to go for the uplifting ending, where they escape into a glorious sunrise of a bright tomorrow, or if the door's going to slam shut on them at the last second and they're going to be trapped in the darkness for another four years.

Er, I mean...another night of terror.

God, I can't wait for the election to come around. I can't stand the suspense much longer.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Doctor Who

(or "The Perfect Engine")

Disclaimer time, here: I'm a bit biased when it comes to Doctor Who. I've been watching the series since I was two years old, I have loads of Doctor Who DVDs and videos, and I currently type this in a room with bookshelves stacked from top to bottom with Doctor Who novels, Doctor Who trade paperbacks, Doctor Who audio plays, and non-fiction books about Doctor Who.

On the other hand, a) that does make me pretty well-informed on the series, in all its various incarnations, and b) that's a lot of incarnations of Doctor Who. Doctor Who is one of those rare concepts that has been adapted to every medium; there have been Doctor Who stage plays, Doctor Who poems, Doctor Who movies and radio plays and comics and yes, a television show that still holds the record as the longest-running science-fiction series in television history. So what is it that makes the concept of Doctor Who as enduring as Superman, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes?

The key, I think, is to look at the elements that have persisted throughout its forty-five year history. Because actors have come and gone, characters and settings have changed, and the show has constantly renewed itself over the years ("regenerated", one might say.) But the constant? It's about a mysterious man with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space.

That's a concept that doesn't need any help at all to generate ideas. The supporting cast can change, the antagonists can come and go, but any writer who can't do something with "anywhere in time and space" doesn't have any business being a writer. Every other book, every other storytelling engine can be ground up and fed into Doctor Who's mill. The Doctor can wander through any historical adventure, he can bump into any science fiction trope, and because of that, there's no end to the number of potential adventures he might have. The only limitation on the series becomes the length of time an actor is willing to put into the part, and a stroke of genius early on even solved that problem.

Even the Doctor's enemies are endlessly reusable. Pitting him against monsters instead of villains allows writers to bring back even the most definitively-killed enemies for another go-round; when you fight entire species of bad guys, nothing short of an extinction-level event is going to stop you from coming back to challenge the Doctor again and again. (And as the Daleks have proven, even those aren't necessarily a barrier. Time machine, remember?)

The strength of Doctor Who is that its concept is so simple and elegant that it can be adapted to fit any other parts that come to mind. It's like a Universal Adaptor for stories, constantly renewing itself by learning from the things around it. One day it's Hammer Horror, the next it's Buffy with time travel. In a hundred years' time, when so many series have been forgotten, I fully expect to see the Thirtieth Doctor and his companions fighting the Daleks on some alien planet. And I look forward to every story between now and then.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Meet 'N Greet #5

A little something different for this one--this is a character I actually deleted, because I didn't like the way it played, but I love the concept, so I'm keeping him alive in some small way by blogging about him here.

We all know about the famous secret bio-weapons projects the US government runs. They're well-known for concealing plans to make the ultimate living weapon, some sort of perfect killing machine with, say, razor-sharp claws, and perhaps some sort of, oh, I don't know, healing factor. Just as a hypothetical example. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

But what's less known is that there are also Brazilian secret bio-weapons programs. They use the molds from the American bio-weapons programs, and then repackage the resultant living weapons under a generic name because they're cheaper. Sure, it violates trademark and copyright, but nobody really cares about the kind of cheap, imported killing machines you can buy in the dollar store, ones with bad paint jobs and the chest logo put on with a sticker. (Damn, lost the subtle thread of the analogy there...)

That's what this character was--the generic Brazilian knock-off of a famous mutant super-soldier. Created from a different secret weapons program, made for cheap with a bad costume and no real personality, he's not Weapon X...

He is...Brand X!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Star Wars

(or "Parts Do Not An Engine Make")

When the Star Wars saga resumed, in 1991, it was with Timothy Zahn's sleek thriller 'Heir to the Empire' (and with the rejoicing of a generation of grown-up Star Wars geeks.) The series picked up five years after the end of the classic trilogy, featuring a sinister, calculating general in the mold of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin, with a plan to restore the glory of the Empire and defeat the hated Rebellion.

The "Thrawn trilogy" proved popular enough to unleash a torrent of spin-offs, from comic book series like 'Dark Empire' (featuring a reborn Emperor), to 'Knights of the Old Republic' (featuring a Sith Lord, Exar Kun, and Ulic Qel-Droma, the Jedi he seduced to the Dark Side) to novels like 'The Courtship of Princess Leia' (featuring an Emperor-like Dark Jedi named Gethzerion), to the 'Jedi Academy' series of novels (featuring a Dark Jedi whom Luke must help redeem), to 'Darksaber' (featuring an evil Hutt who is Jabba the Hutt's successor) to the "Rogue Squadron" series of both novels and comics (featuring Ysenne Isard, another Tarkin-esque figure), to the massive 'Shadows of the Empire' project, which crossed over into just about every medium other than film (and centered around a Jabba-esque crimelord...)

Do you start to see the issue, here? It's not fair to suggest that the ancillary Star Wars stories are derivative, but the villains for a lot of the spin-offs do tend to fit neatly into the mold of either being like Tarkin, Vader, the Emperor, or Jabba the Hutt...coincidentally, the four main villainous characters in the classic trilogy. The series seems to be trying endlessly to replace the villains Lucas finished off in his final movie (or, in the case of Tarkin, his first.) Some uncharitable types might say that it's because the authors who've written for the Star Wars spin-offs are unimaginative, but I think it's actually down to the nature of the universe they're writing for.

Because Lucas didn't intend for Star Wars to be a storytelling engine. Sure, he put in tons of detail--the series is known for the thousands of tiny little elements, in the dialogue, the costuming, the special effects, and the entire aesthetic of the series that all combine to form a galaxy that seems limitless and filled with potential. But Lucas didn't do that to create an engine to tell lots and lots of stories--he did it to make the one story he wanted to tell seem immersive and real. The Star Wars movies aren't open-ended; they're the tale of Darth Vader, and his fall and redemption. Details like "the Kessel run" and Krayt Dragons and bacta tanks and tibanna gas and the temples on Yavin are there for verisimilitude. Even the title, 'Episode IV', was put there originally just to give you the sense that you've entered into a story that has a history. (Lucas, of course, claims that he had Episodes I-III planned out all along. But when you have a draft of 'Empire' that has Lando being a descendant of the evil clones that the Jedi fought during the Clone Wars, it does make that claim a bit suspect.)

The key sign of the lack of a deliberate, designed storytelling engine in Star Wars is the lack of villains. Lucas designed his story to have a beginning, middle, and an end, and he neatly made sure that all the major villains of the piece got their comeuppance by that ending. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. Nobody has to plan for a series to come out of the story they want to tell, and nobody has to think in terms of a potentially endless series of sequels and spin-offs. Lucas told the story he wanted to tell, and in a very real sense, it was the audience who demanded more stories. One year's fan became another year's storyteller, filling in every detail of the universe Lucas created with meaning. But it's much easier to fill in the background of the people, places and things that make up the Star Wars universe than it is to make entirely new stories set there. It's not too surprising, really, that they turned to the models Lucas had created as inspiration for their stories.