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.