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.