Back to the core of the story – a great week of TV

I watch my TV online through channels’ streaming sites and Netflix, to avoid the schedules and the adverts. Also because I tend to forget that stuff’s on. So over the weekend, I ended up watching last week’s Misfits as well as Agents of SHIELD. They were both great episodes relative to their shows – though Misfits, being Misfits, was far more interesting – and they both acted as reminders for me of how important it is to stay true to the core of the world you’re exploring.

Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.
Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.

Spoilers ahead for both shows. Just saying.

Agents of SHIELD

I know some people have been down on this episode. But for me, it focused on the things the show originally promised – how living in a superhero world affects ordinary people, and connecting up with the Marvel movieverse.

The whole plot stems from the actions of a group of fire fighters who helped clear up the mess in New York after the Avengers film. They’ve been through a lot just doing that, and naturally enough they’ve taken a souvenir. It was a great reminder that somebody has to clear up after the destruction of these superpowered showdowns. That that’s hard, sometimes heart breaking work. And that, for the people involved, it would be a huge moment in their lives.

The souvenir, an alien helmet sitting in a fire station, was also emblematic of the exotic element entering ordinary people’s lives. Of the sense of wonder those fire fighters felt seeing beings that had come from another world. Of just how brightly that moment must have shone for them compared with their ordinary lives. And of the fact that something that powerful, that exotic, can also be dangerous.

This was followed up in the second half of the show when Simmons became infected by the virus on the helmet. She was all excited about science, and then she was facing her own death. Because she was ultimately just a scientist, and she’d been infected by something from another world. The way she handled that almost had Mrs K crying.

So what looked like a mystery of the week became an exploration of the show’s themes and the nature of its world, and that was great.

Misfits

To my mind, Misfits has been upping its game all through this series, following the wobbles of the last one. It’s getting properly focused on its own core theme and the point of its world – slightly rubbish super powers possessed by slightly rubbish people.

This week they explored that theme in a big way, paying off the promise of Abby’s mysterious background. Who was this girl who couldn’t remember her past? Who had she been before the storm? And, from the more meta perspective of the audience, why was she in the show if she didn’t have a super power?

The answer paid off both promise and theme beautifully – Abby wasn’t a real person. She was someone’s imaginary friend, the output of that person’s power. She was, in essence, no-one. And, as a result, she lost what was becoming the great romantic relationship of her life.

It was heartbreaking. But in true Misfits style, this wasn’t made maudlin, but delivered with a flurry of sex gags and inappropriate behaviour. The episode was both beautiful and hilarious, and a reminder that the people society treats as hopeless and unimportant can have as deep and powerful feelings as anybody else.

Just goes to show

For me as a writer, this was a reminder not to get too distracted. To remember the core theme of the world I’m writing within, and make the whole story an expression of that. And also that superpowered stories don’t have to be just crash-bang-wallop.

So, if you got through all my ramblings, did you watch those shows? And what did you think?

 

Picture by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr creative commons

Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.

 

Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?

Misfits

I followed the advice in my last post, went on holiday and left the computer at home. Very relaxing. But now I’m back, and so is Misfits.

Woohoo Misfits!

I have no idea whether Misfits has travelled beyond Britain. I can see how it might not have done. Not everyone’s going to buy into the story of a group of British delinquents who acquire ill-explained super-powers and use them in the most misguided ways. But that niche approach is part of the appeal for me. It doesn’t show people using powers in the traditional framework of heroes and villains. It shows them doing what most people do with any talent – nothing of much note.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12cRmvvuPjk&w=560&h=315]

Ah Nathan, how I miss you

The other Britain

Equally admirable is the show’s engagement with a Britain not often seen on TV screens. This is the place where vast swathes of the population live, in run down old estates and jobs that are demeaning if they even exist. Looked down on for infractions that are petty or even normal within their social sphere, punished with marginalisation and in this case community service for being who they are, whether that’s good people or not.

The only comparable example I can think of is Top Boy, which like Misfits neither glamorises nor condemns lives of boredom and petty crime. Both shows, in very different ways, show people living on the edge of the society we normally talk about. What’s special about Misfits is that it addresses this not with seriousness, but with grim humour and a touch of the fantastic.

Fantasy everywhere

For me, what this really highlights is that you can write fantasy in any setting, but that modern fantasy, urban fantasy, can be quite narrow in its focus. It’s detectives and journalists, successful criminals and mysterious academics. The humans it mixes with the magic really represent a minority of the population. That’s a shame, and maybe part of why fantasy remains slightly marginalised as a genre.

Sure, Misfits goes too far at times. Almost anyone will find it offensive at some point. But for all that its fourth season struggled with cast changes and poor structure, it’s still one of the best bits of TV coming out of the UK right now. Fantasy can shine a fresh light on reality, and it shouldn’t limit the reality it explores. Misfits is refreshing, adventurous and willing to go too far. And isn’t that what superpowers are all about?

What do you think? Have you been watching Misfits, and what do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? What are your favourite scenes? If you haven’t seen it then what other super-powered shows, books or comics would you recommend? What does something interesting with powers? Let me know below.

Externalising the inner voice – lessons from Dexter

It can be difficult to get a character’s inner voice out. With books and short stories we can at least put thoughts straight onto the page, though that can sometimes be overly expository or slow down the pace. And for films and TV it’s even harder – characters’ attempts to express their emotions, to tell us what the writers want us to know of their inner state, can seem very forced. But this week I was struck by a particularly good example that uses varied approaches.

It’s the TV show Dexter.

Dexter

In case you don’t know it, Dexter is a drama about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. He’s a dark character who has trouble addressing his own thoughts and feelings. The actor can’t always show them on Dexter’s face because he’s a sociopath hiding what feelings he has from the world. But that’s awkward, because Dexter’s inner workings are central to the show.

They get round this in three ways – through ordinary dialogue, through Dexter’s inner monologue, and through the speeches he gives to his victims.

Dialogue

The dialogue is the most standard tool, and applies more to the other characters than Dexter himself. The writers, and the actors performing their words, do a good job of showing rather than telling what’s going on with a character. Someone who’s on edge won’t say they feel on edge, they’ll snap and snarl at people around them. It’s a standard approach, one every writer needs, but it’s easy to forget how hard it is to get it right. And they get it right.

Inner monologue

Every episode we get to hear Dexter’s thoughts. Not the chaotic jumble of natural human thinking, but an organised monologue about things from his past and what he feels about his current situation. Dexter addresses the audience directly, letting us know where he’s at. Done badly, this could just be crude exposition, but here it adds depth to proceedings, showing what can’t be seen on the face of a stone cold killer.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have used a similar technique in some of their comic collaborations, such as Sleeper and Criminal. As well as illustrating a character’s thoughts and feelings this sets up dramatic ironies, with thoughts and visuals in contrast.

There’s show going on as well as tell. Dexter doesn’t always tell us that he’s conflicted over something – as with other dialogue, often he’ll give us just enough to work it out for ourselves. And when he tells us something directly, it’s a way of bringing things together, of highlighting a theme and clarifying an episode’s message.

The villainous monologue

Dexter’s speeches to his victims have something of the super-villain monologue to them, explaining what he’s doing and why. But they don’t feel forced or unnatural. The writers have created a character who needs to vent in this way, and then given him an opportunity to do so.

And of course there’s some show as well as tell here, as Dexter’s inner life becomes more complicated, so his relationship with his victims becomes less straightforward.

The spice of life

The writers of Dexter have created a problem for themselves, and then solved it in a variety of ways. It’s part of what keeps the show fresh and interesting, and I find it a useful example to examine. Which thoughts and feelings are expressed in which ways can be as telling as the words themselves. It’s inspired me to think hard about how I show characters’ inner states.

What do you think? Are there other examples that are good at this, in books or on the screen, or that get thoughts out in other ways? Let me know in the comments – I’m always interested to have more ideas.

Yuck, you got your destiny on me

I found a lot to love about Atlantis, the BBC’s new Saturday night family friendly adventure show, and some things that weren’t so great. But the thing that most got my goat wasn’t unusual or unexpected. It’s something most viewers probably won’t have formed an opinion on, but that’s become a trigger for annoyance from me.

Atlantis - exactly as good as you'd expect from this poster
Atlantis – exactly as good as you’d expect from this poster

It is your destiny

What bothers me is predestination.

As the show went on, it became increasingly clear that Jason, the lead character, is the centre of a web of prophecy, some kind of messiah figure. In a way, that’s fitting. Prophecy was all the rage in the ancient Mediterranean, the inspiration for Atlantis. But it bothers me because, in 99.99% of books, TV shows and films (trust me, I’ve faked the maths), prophecies and chosen ones turn out to be true.

This bothers me for a whole bunch of reasons, so lets start with the easiest one to explain…

Other characters

If a central character is prophesied to bring about salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, and the world works in a way where prophecies come true, then this disempowers the other characters. They’re never going to be the bringers of salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, no matter how hard they try. They become insignificant by comparison. As a reader or viewer I therefore know there are limits to what they’ll achieve. I feel sorry for them, and a bit cheated on their behalf. How could the writers do this to poor Jo? I had high hopes for him.

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was explored within this stories more. What does it feel like to be the younger brother, the sidekick, the colleague of a person who is known to be so much more significant? It looks like Agents of SHIELD might start exploring this in relation to superheroics, but mostly it gets ignored, or if we’re lucky turned into a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue.

The hero

In my mind, predestination, prophecy, all that jazz, if it’s real then it disempowers the hero as well. Their path is pre-ordained. They can try to find alternatives, but they’ll be drawn back no matter what. Poor hero.

And that also lessens them in my eyes. Even if they’ve struggled against enormous odds to achieve their destiny, were they really enormous odds if the universe had said from the start that they’d win? Not so much. I feel less like cheering and more like giving a gentle thumbs up.

The reader

And then there’s me, the reader or viewer. If I know there’s a prophecy, and I know that prophecies always work out, I feel less tension. My long-shot hopes for the hero to choose a different path, or for someone unexpected to shine through instead, those are gone.

Plus prophecy tends to be a warning sign that Very Portentous Things are about to happen. That the creator of the story wants a short-cut to making me take things Very Seriously Indeed. This was my problem with seasons three and four of Angel. Things became Very Serious Indeed. In fact, the show spent so time making things Very Serious Indeed that it stopped putting its full effort into character, pacing and humour. If there’s a prophecy, I fear for the future of any story.

I foresee hope

Of course, none of this is absolute. Writers can, potentially, do interesting things with prophecy. George R R Martin lets prophecies motivate people and then go unfulfilled, just like in real life. J K Rowling, whose Harry Potter books suffered from lashings of destiny, played with this a little through Neville (not coincidentally, my favourite Hogwarts student). But usually, prophecy is just a cheap short-cut to express importance, a way to tell us that the protagonist is significant even though we already know that because, well, they’re the protagonist.
There’s a lot of interesting stories that could be told about prophecy, its social impact, its psychological effect on those involved, what happens when it fails. And maybe, just maybe, Atlantis will do that. After all, it’s been created by Howard Overman, the mind behind Misfits. But on the other hand, it’s in the easy viewing Saturday adventure slot, so I won’t hold out much hope.

I know other people must love a good prophecy. After all, they turn up in books all the time. But I don’t get it, I really don’t.

Do you love a good prophecy? Know a good example where it’s undermined? Have an opinion on Atlantis? Then I foresee that you will leave a comment below.

Agents of SHIELD – making the familiar interesting

Like half the people I know, I was in front of my TV at eight o’clock last night for the UK start of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Like many of my friends, I was super excited beforehand, and like a slightly smaller number, I was still super excited by the end. I could do a long post about why I think this show is great, but Hello, tailor has already covered most of what I’d say. So instead I wanted to think about what makes the show interesting.

The SHIELD shield
The SHIELD shield

Lets be clear from the start. A lot about Agents of SHIELD is very familiar. There’s the Whedonesque dialogue of which I’m a big fan. There’s a plot about science gone wrong. There’s some action and some exposition around tables. There aren’t a lot of big surprises, and it doesn’t challenge its audience. But of course it doesn’t – it’s an extension of the Marvel movie franchise, not Breaking Bad. It’s the safest of safe corporate products, and if it makes me think at all then its well ahead of where I once feared it would be.

That connection to the Marvel films is interesting in itself. This isn’t a film spinning off into a TV show, or vice versa. It’s part of an ongoing franchise, in which TV and films can hopefully weave together. If it works well, they’ll reference each other in a way which adds richness to both, without making audiences reliant on catching every single Marvel movieverse product. If it works badly, then the TV show could end up feeling irrelevant to movie fans or incomprehensible to those who haven’t scrutinised every detail of the latest Captain America film. It’s a tough trick to pull off – there are many examples of comics doing it well, many more of them doing it badly – but it’s great to see such ambition in play, and if anyone can pull it off then Joss Whedon can.

That relationship with comics plays into another thing I find interesting. Near the end of the show, a character gives a speech about how it feels to be an ordinary person in a world that contains superheroes, how much less relevant we all become. It’s not a new idea to comics fans, who’ve been treated to dozens of challenging readings on the impact of superheroes over the decades. But it’s something new to see on the screen, taking it to a much wider audience. And I think there’s potential for it to draw out a wider issue, using this as a metaphor for modern culture and how people feel when role models are held out as so much more wealthy, more glamorous, more powerful, more unobtainable than them. This looks to be a big theme of the show, so lets hope it’s handled well.

Another of the obvious points of interest is how they dealt with the previous death of their lead character, Agent Coulson. The obvious option would have been to gloss over this, give a quick explanation and move on, ignoring the awkward point. Instead, as my friend John pointed out, they’ve made it a significant feature of the plot. Alternative explanations are being offered or hinted at, and it’s clear there’s something dubious going on here. They haven’t just hung a lantern on it, turned it into a joke for the audience, and I’m glad of that because such brief acknowledgement would have felt like cheating. They’ve turned one of their biggest plot problems into an asset, and that’s great.

For Whedon fans there’s the almost compulsory appearance of familiar faces from his past work – J. August Richards from Angel as a superpowered unemployed factory worker, Ron Glass from Firefly as a SHIELD scientist. For me, this is turning into one of the pleasures of Whedon’s work. It’s like watching the same theatrical troop putting on different plays, seeing how each actor performs in different roles, seeing the same faces in a different arrangement. Some might find it distracting, but for me the appearance of the Whedon troop adds to the richness of my viewing experience.

If my feelings on what makes the show interesting are summed up in one point, it’s in Lola, Agent Coulson’s car. At this point I’m going to drop a very mild spoiler, but then, if you haven’t watched the show you probably haven’t read this far. So, let me rephrase my last sentence – Loala is Agent Coulson’s flying car. Lola’s an old sports car, apparently one of Coulson’s collectibles, that turns out to have something hi-tech beneath the bonnet. But that hi-tech thing isn’t really a new idea – flying cars have been turning up in sci-fi for decades, even if they’ve never made their way into reality. Even Lola’s sci-fi element is retro. She’s a reference to the tradition of sixties hi-tech spies, the James Bonds and Nick Furies of this world, from which Agents of SHIELD springs. She’s an acknowledgement that even the new and shiny parts of this show aren’t really new ideas, they’re just being presented in a new arrangement.

Agents of SHIELD hasn’t brought us anything new yet. It hasn’t broken fresh ground, or turned the world of geek upside down. But it’s doing interesting things with the parts it’s got, playing with long standing elements of comics and TV culture in fun ways, and isn’t that a great thing in itself?

If you’ve not seen it already, try to watch the Agents of SHIELD pilot. And if you’ve got any thoughts on it, I’d love to read them below.

Watching Despicable Me 2 – genre in kids films

I went to see Despicable Me 2 at the weekend, and loved every moment of it. It’s one of those great fun kids movies that, like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, takes elements from sci-fi and fantasy and plays with them in completely unexpected ways. It got me thinking – why do these genre films for kids work so well for me?

One part is definitely the over-the-top characters. Anyone who’s seen me do drama or roleplay could tell you that I don’t go for subtle. I like characters who are wild and flamboyant and comically exaggerated. But I like them to be grounded just slightly in reality too. My character might be having absurd conversations with a corn dolly, but deep down he’ll be doing it to escape the horrors of war. The same thing happens in these films. Gru might be a cartoon super-villain, and Lucy an over-excited high-kicking secret agent, but beneath it are characters with relatable feelings, going through familiar story arcs. We get to enjoy the cartoonish absurdity, freed from the limits of reasonable behaviour, without it feeling so distant and unreal as Tom and Jerry.

There’s a playfulness in the use of fantastic elements as well. These films worry less about making any kind of sense, and so the villain can plan to steal the moon, or the hero can turn rainclouds into food. It’s still following the genre logic of mad science, but casting aside the real world logic of science, economics, cause and effect. It frees up the ‘what ifs’ to allow things like Gru’s army of minions. See that in a grown-up film and you’d start asking why he hires these idiots, or how he pays them. Watch them in something like this and you’re just laughing at their antics.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYBw_o_2nG0&w=420&h=315]

 

That highlights an overall theme – because it’s created for kids, we’ll forgive it its plot holes. Something happened near the end of Despicable Me 2 that made me go ‘oh come on, you’ve not earned that’. But only for a moment. Then I shrugged, recognised it as inevitable, and got on with enjoying the film. I would not have been so forgiving for George Lucas.

Maybe as readers and viewers we should sometimes take this approach to other stories. Consistent story and realistic characters have their place, but letting those constraints go allows for the wild, the colourful, the new. If we’ll flock in our thousands to see that in kids’ films, why not in ‘grown-up’ works too?

Oh, and if you haven’t already, watch Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs – it’s a wonderful example of this stuff at work.