[Spoilers ahead for Marvel comics and Being Human]
A series’ heart is its characters—whether it’s comedy, tragedy, fantasy, what have you, generally speaking, if you’re going to really capture the audience what you want is a good cast. You could have the most banal or wacky concept in the world, but if you have good characters people like and are interested in, people will watch it. Similarly, you could have the coolest and most fascinating backdrop ever, but without good characters to form that human connection, nothing’s going to glue. So, once you’ve got this band of characters that forms the bridge of audience attachment, you’d be silly to change them, right? Well, not always. Not every series revolves around the same set of fictional people for its entirety, and sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s bad.
Some series cling to their characters for decades, some change them every few seasons as a matter of course (like Skins), some bring back beloved concepts with new faces (Star Trek: Next Gen perhaps). Every long-running series has a kind of conceptual mould at its heart (e.g. Madoka Magica’s mould is “young girls fight monsters and discover the evil in the system they’re fighting for”) and a set of main characters (Madoka, Homura, Sayaka and co.). Sometimes, if they run long enough, these can get a little tired, so you have to change things up, unless you’ve got something truly episodic with no excessive continuity like old sitcoms. Generally, you can either change the characters (for example, bring in a new group of Magical Girls to follow) or break the mould (now instead of this being a story about fighting monsters it’s about fighting each other and their various dubious motivations).
Comics often keep their moulds, but get new characters within it. The new Thor comics star a woman (to the ecstatic cries of one half of the internet and the groans of the other, of course) not because Thor as we know him has been warped into a sex change, but because a new character has picked up the hammer and gained the powers therein, thus becoming the person to carry the title. So you can still have all your adventures that play with the universe and themes that suit that story, but to keep things fresh there’s a new lead to follow, get attached to, come to understand. It keeps the flavour and formula the same, but changes up the human connection to make things interesting and fresh. Thor was also a frog at one point, I’m pretty sure, so it’s not as if this is something new. Continue reading →
Every story comes with its own bargeful of “what if”s, whether they’re minor points of interest or catastrophic differences that could change the entire course and outcome of the plot. After all, string theory states that there’s an alternate universe out there where every outcome and variable is true (which means there’s a universe out there where string theory isn’t true even if it is, but that’s a headache for another day). These things are always fun for the creative-minded to play with in fandoms, but what’s interesting to me is works that actually ask and answer a lot of those “what if”s as part of their storytelling process.
Games and visual novels, obviously, are a perfect medium for this—they’re less concrete than movies or books, for example, whether their plot itself is linear or open world. Either way, generally with a lot of games half the point of interest is an interactive and fluid audience experience, where the audience is well, less of an audience, and more an active participant in the events. In open world games like Skyrim this can mean choosing your what political or rebellious factions you get involved with and thus swaying the outcome of the history of the land, or, it could just mean wandering the wilds of your own accord, deciding whether to be a good knight or a pickpocketing ass, or whether or not to fill your house with cabbages.
In more plot-based games like the Mass Effects (or interactive-movie-esque, decision-based ones like Beyond Two Souls), every decision fits together to be vital (at least a little) to the final result of the story of the trilogy, going so far as to have your choices from the first instalment affecting the gameplay in the third. This gives the player an epic sense of immersion in the story, and a feeling of responsibility for the fate of the universe, throwing them into a strong analysis of the morals of war that they as a person in the real world are directly involved in… or, you could just play around and focus on picking which crew member to romance. Which is another genre that this multiple-plot-string storytelling goes hand in hand with. Continue reading →
I’m talking about fan service again—not so much the “oh look, boobs!” fan service but pandering to fans on a textual level. Which is an odd thing to say, since every piece of fiction is written for an audience, and showrunners of ongoing series are smart to listen and react to that audience, as it can let them know what the fans are enjoying and finding problems with. This age of communication and breakdown of barriers between creators and consumers (think Twitter interactions and mainstream access to conventions and panels etc.) is giving way to a new breed of fiction, which can much more effectively be improved and aimed to its audience. However, there comes a point where one has to ponder if waving to that pre-established audience and giving them what they ‘want’ has gotten in the way of the story you were trying to tell.
Supernatural has announced that it’s doing a “musical-ish” episode for its 200th show. Well, the creative team has announced that—Supernatural is many things and by this point a giant heaving clusterbomb of convoluted fan-creator connection, but I don’t think its gained sentience yet. Anyway, I only know of this because I’ve seen fans delighting over the announcement, and also know from watching that same circle from the periphery that a musical episode (inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s famous ‘Once More With Feeling’) is something fans have been speculating on and wishing for for a long time. It seems their words have been heard. I’m not going to peer too much at the Supernatural team for this since they’ve done plenty of ridiculous stuff and at 200 episodes something like this is a reward for sticking around through all of it. But I do have an issue with the practice of gift-wrapping tossed-around fan ideas and publishing them.
In case anyone’s wondering, I’m still mad about Sherlock season three. I have no shame in admitting I adored the show at its beginning, but I have even less in declaring I now find it a self-congratulatory swamp of silliness. The entire third season, though this is an oxymoron, felt like fanfiction of itself. The focus shifted from the compelling mysteries (the point of the show, its plot spine) to more domestic and character-central plots, including a whole episode devoted to Sherlock’s Best Man speech (and also John’s wedding, I guess, but Sherlock’s orating seemed to take up the entire thing) and so, so much glimmering emphasis on the unbreakable bond between the detective duo despite John quite rightly being furious with Sherlock at the start. Because JohnLock is alive and real, and their interactions are what the fans want to see, right? Continue reading →
Hush little audience don’t you cry, you knew your favourite character was going to die…
Well, that’s an unnerving little lullaby isn’t it? The fact is, the author giveth and the author taketh away, and the characters and worlds creative professionals breathe life into are often at risk of having that life sucked right back out of it. Yes, friends and loved ones, I’m talking about character deaths again. An excessive amount, or a lack thereof, both of which seem to be trending across popular TV series at current, and both of which have some iffy implications.
Game of Thrones, for example, has by now a stellar reputation for sticking an axe into everyone you love, or, in less weepy terms, its writer assigning no contractual immortality to the ‘good guys’. One of the most popular anime series at the moment, Attack on Titan, runs a similar operation, as does the Fate franchise which has spent the better part of this year putting my heart through a pepper grinder. Supernatural is not much better. In the sphere of YA The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are well worthy of note, with fans everywhere lamenting the loss of their favourites in whatever context. Suzanne, George, J.K. and their kind have earned their place in the hearts of many as the harbingers of doom.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Steven Moffat, who, as much discussed in the wake of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special, has a general aversion to actually killing characters off. Which is fine, on one level, since not every series has to contain a warzone’s worth of death if it’s not actually set in a warzone. But what our champ the Moff does is fake out deaths; kill Rory and bring him back so many times it becomes a running joke, displace people in time so they pass away quietly off-screen, or just smack the literal giant reset button and make everything okay again. As a side note, there is an actual website where you can press a ‘make everything okay’ button, which is really cute, but as a writing technique it’s… rather dicey.
There he goes again
At one end of the tightrope, you have Game of Thrones watchers joking that they’re hesitant to get attached to new characters since they’ll probably just get killed off, at the other, all tension and sense of fear for the Doctor and his crew is pretty much evaporated due to their writers’ discomfort with the idea of killing anyone permanently. Neither of these is really a position your show wants to be in. Continue reading →
All logic tells us that horror and comedy are two genres that should be worlds apart. But, finally getting to hang out at the big genre dinner party, while Fantasy and Sci-Fi are chatting happily, Romance and Drama have retreated to the kitchen with the champagne bottle and Arthouse is smoking in the bathroom, Horror and Comedy find they have more common than one might initially think.
The conventions that make us laugh are, strangely enough, the same sort of things that make us scared. Juxtapositions, for example. Things doing what they should not normally do are funny; for instance, elderly women forming gangs and beating people up a la Monty Python, or children’s stuffed toys being foul-mouthed drug users, a la Ted. Things being the wrong size, like a giant sandwich falling from the sky, or being where they shouldn’t, like finding Rowan Atkinson in the cabinet under your kitchen sink.
These tweaks of the ordinary make for humour, but the same idea is also a fundamental ingredient in scaring the bejeezus out of people. The dead, for instance, should stay dead. It is an accepted piece of logic in most cultures, despite whatever succinct beliefs they hold about what happens to the soul afterwards. That is why zombies and ghosts are scary, because once somebody has died and been laid to rest, the general consensus in society is that they should stay there. It’s immediately eerie when the dead in question subverts that by dragging itself back into the picture.
Furniture should also not move of its own accord, which is what makes poltergeists and other demonic tomfoolery freaky. In fact, generally speaking, demons and company should stay in mythology where they came from, and black magic, unquiet spirits and bloodthirsty night-crawlers are immediately disconcerting to any viewer because they’re already defying the rules of the world.
No I am not your Mummy. Leave me alone
Just as the image of old ladies going savage amuses us, the image of children acting creepy terrifies us. Old ladies are, traditionally, quiet and refined and soft and lovely and not going to go out into the streets on motorbikes and start bashing up phone booths. And children are, traditionally, pictures of innocence and cuteness and need to be protected by adults. This is why it’s so effective when horror movies or books use the creepy child trope—it subverts every instinct we have about the nature of children, and it freaks us the hell out. Continue reading →
Within fiction there are certain codes, ingrained enough in our collective psyche that, hypothetically, if we were to end up stranded in a made-up world, we, as geeks and fiction aficionados, would sort of know what to do to stay alive.
It’s a dangerous business being a fictional character. As if life wasn’t hard enough, you’re caught and contracted into the business of propelling along a story, and that means having constant drama flung at you by the godly hands of your writers. They’ve got to keep the audience invested, see, whether that means piquing their curiosity about the future of your love life or scaring the bejeezus out of them with life-or-death suspense. My understanding of television writing comes down to this: it’s a group of people in a room with some pens and paper and a whiteboard, rubbing their hands together and going “Okay, team. How can we mess around with everyone’s lives this season?”
Not even kidding there. I listened to a seminar on it at a writer’s festival I went to, but that’s an irrelevant detail except that it allows me to waft around the fact I visit writer’s festivals and am clearly a deeply cultured human being. The point is, screenwriters are in the biz of cramming as much drama into their characters’ lives as they can to make their creations as engaging as possible. In any long running series, it’s inevitable that at one point or another they’d have to start running out. After all, there are only so many times you can raise the stakes before it gets ridiculous. When scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel with a creative spatula, writers are often faced with the option of the ultimate dramatic device: kill off a main character.
If we’re talking about anything set in the real world, this can be a serious move that many executives, team members and fans would rebel against in terror. But if your show resides in a universe where the supernatural is putty in its writers’ hands, then you’ll find there’s much more leeway, and, as the hero, much more of a chance you’ll be horribly murdered. Because they can bring you back. Continue reading →
Time travel wrinkles my brain. How’s that for a topic sentence?
It’s a favourite device in science fiction (and fantasy) because let’s face it, if you had the opportunity to traverse history, would you turn it down? Haven’t you always wanted to wander around your favourite past era, sit in on a world-changing event, or go the other way and see what the world will be like in 300 years when the apocalypse has hit or whether or not you get married and end up having a little Jetsons-esque family?
Time travel can create endless fun and endless stories (how do you think Doctor Who’s managed to stay on air for 50 years? All of time and space = literally endless plot possibilities) but like most super fun high-tech things it comes with a long and arduous warning label and a set of curly rules. It doesn’t help that these seem to differ depending on the method used and the story it’s used within. For example, one story world may deem travelling to the past completely fine since it’s all already happened and time is fixed in a straight line, and some may warn against it with giant flashing lights because simply by setting foot in an era you haven’t yet been born into, you’ve altered history as we know it.
When traversing the time streams one must be dutiful not to step on any butterflies, alter any significant moments in history or, say, get hit by a car and prevent one’s own parents from meeting thus erasing your own existence. This should all be fairly straight forward, but it’s surprising how often heroes manage to screw it up. What then? Well, maybe you could go back in time again and stop yourself from messing up… Continue reading →
Much as I hate to reduce myself to someone who tries to get their point across by typing all in caps, OH MY GOD HAVE YOU SEEN THIS TREND IT IS THE MOST HORRIFYING THING ON THE PLANET
HERE WATCH THIS VIDEO IT EXPLAINS IT BETTER THAN I EVER COULD
I don’t immerse myself in a lot of science fiction and fantasy, as I have said before, so this disturbing trope caught me rather by surprise. Basically, as that keen lady said, it involves using supernatural pregnancy as a plot device.
Let me be completely upfront here: I have no idea what’s going on with the most recent seasons of Doctor Who.
Cardgames on motorcycles?
I stopped watching, I have to admit, after the end of season four and the loss of Donna Noble, wherein I decided that things had gotten a little convoluted and epic-scale for my preference. I also had a soft spot for David Tennant that I just didn’t feel rekindled in the new face, but that’s just me being picky.
If I wanted to catch up on New Who, as some people inform me I maybe should, it would be a mammoth task—this is not a series that you can simply dip into anymore, with interconnecting and twisted continuity that makes even my brain hurt. It came on TV the other night (premiere of the new season!) and my family were pondering whether to tune in, and I had to tell them I was pretty sure the time would be wasted as we wouldn’t understand a smidge of what was going on.
And that’s okay; it’s plain to see many other people are still avidly enjoying the series—which, actually, is how I keep a vague track of what is going on. Putting the snippet together from the reactions of the internet is always interesting. For season 7 part 2 (or however things are being organised) what we have so far is a monk outfit, the Doctor having amazing hair, wi-fi is dangerous somehow and the new companion has a book with a leaf in it that features a pair that look like Sherlock and John on the cover. That’s what I know. You see why I might be a bit befuddled?
Anyway, let’s talk about this new girl though, from what little I understand: yet another fresh-faced, plucky young woman who is gearing up for adventures through space fantasy, you may think, but there’s something different about Clara Oswald. She’s appeared in other episodes before, in the special Asylum of the Daleks and the Christmas special, both in entirely unconnected worlds, and it’s also revealed in a prequel short that the Doctor met her when she was a little girl. Trailers have the Doctor informing us that she is “the greatest mystery in the Universe”. It’s certainly a break from the usual formula. Continue reading →
There’s always that one character that gets a barrel of fan hatred dumped on them. Always, without question. It’s one of those rule of the universe things (others include: if you drop toast it will always land spread side down and get covered in carpet fluff and cat hair, if your infallible washing machine that has worked for 20 years ever breaks down it will be when you desperately need it, and if it’s possible for a cat to do, there are at least ten videos of it on YouTube).
Upon inspection, however, I’ve begun to wonder what exactly it is that magnetises so much bitterness towards these fictional people, especially from the loudest demographic of most fandoms: the young adult female bloggers.
Let’s begin with the example of Sansa Stark of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. I have yet to delve into the intricacies of this series and its fandom but from the periphery (tumblr is a wonderful thing) I can see that there’s not a lot of love for her. In fact, she’s one of the least popular people in the series, and the subject of a lot of whinery, mostly centring around the fact that she is “whiny” “shallow” “useless” and “annoying”.