4/13/2007

Since we're on a roll with tv shows and films I love to hate, I've been watching the BBC series Life on Mars with some interest. A thousand blog entries and casual conversations have taken place over this series (and the upcoming US remake) that I don't particularly want to go over the details of what it's about in any great detail, but it's probably worth a very brief recap; Sam Tyler, a police officer from the present, gets hit on the head and winds up in 1973, where he frequently hears the voices of people around his hospital bed in the 'present'. In the meantime, the evidence he's merely trapped in a coma-derived hallucination is occasionally disturbed by the notion he might really be in 1973.

Where. To even. Start.

Let's get it straight; I've mostly enjoyed this series. 'Mostly' because I could smell what was coming, as far as the series resolution went. Is he in a coma, in 1973, is he awake or asleep, yadda yadda. Fun, up to a point, despite the constant awareness on my part that given the overwhelming evidence he was in a coma, I was therefore supposed to care for a range of supporting characters who, therefore, clearly did not exist, and did not enjoy any objective life outside of Sam's wild coma-induced imaginings whatsoever.

I don't know about you, but for me, that's a stretch. But I went with it, and watched the finale the other night. It was pretty much what I expected; a complete abdication from rationality, logic, the fundamental rules of storytelling, and altogether a denouement that makes the conclusion to the Marx Brothers Duck Soup look like an exercise in Bergmanesque existential realism by comparison.

He's in a dream. And now he wakes up. Except now he's finally back in the real world, he finds he prefers the imaginary world of his coma.

So he ... throws himself off the top of a building in a clear act of real-world suicide ... and wakes up in 1973?

Eh?

In fact, put aside whether or not the end of the series actually makes a blind bit of sense whatsoever, and consider the kind of message being delivered here: given the choice betwen fantasy and reality, is the BBC trying to tell us it's better to kill yourself and enter a fantasy for eternity, assuming (as many have noted with varying degrees of incredulity) that Manchester in 1973 is some kind of substitute for Heaven?

At this point, it's usually the case people will say something like 'oh, it's only a bit of fun, a television drama'. Yes, but here in the UK, we pay for our television.

And my counterargument is often look, imagine the conversations going on in the boardrooms and creative departments of the BBC; are you sure there isn't even the tiniest sliver of contempt for the audience wedged in there somewhere? And further - given my audience for these arguments is usually other writers - if I presented this story and this conclusion to you in the context of a writers' workshop, would you really let me get away with an ending like that? Wouldn't you pull me up and say, look, what the hell are you trying to say or do here, in this final episode?

I do have an idea why there's this constant trend away from workable plotting and rationality in series like Life on Mars and films like Sunshine. It has to do with character development, over plot development.

Balancing character and plot can be a tricky thing to do, and a very crude definition of genre as opposed to 'mainstream' writing is that genre is plot-oriented, and non-genre is character-oriented. To put it another way, a genre book might be (remember, crude definitions here) heavy on action and stuff happening, but low on development on characters. Non-genre might be something very low on action, but heavy on character.

In tv and film, character development most often follows a kind of 'arc of revelation', where the character learns something they didn't know at the beginning. Crudely, a male character might go from being a boy to a man, through the learning - usually the hard way - of the rules of adult responsibility. Spielberg's War of the Worlds follows the template fairly closely. Tom Cruise's character starts as a fairly feckless individual who's not too hot in the personal responsibility stakes. His character is developed by his overwhelming need to protect a child, played by Dakota Fanning, whom he needs to get to safety. In this way, his character is seen to mature and develop.

A very common character arc in genre fiction - particularly fantasy - is for a character to seek escape from some fantasy world, only to realise at the last moment that the world in which he has been trapped - but now has the option to escape from - is in fact now his real home, and so elects to remain. Life on Mars reflects exactly this arc, and even though the end of the series makes not the tiniest bit of sense whatsoever, what happens to Sam Tyler on an emotional, personal level makes perfect sense, regardless of whether or not the events around the character make Dali look like a cold-eyed realist.

This also applies to Sunshine - if you ignore the hackneyed plot and abundance of special effects designed to prevent you noticing the multitude of flaws, there are elements of the development of hte central characters that make sense - after a fashion. When the Maths Genius is trapped on board the bomb plummeting into the Sun, the solar plasma begins leaking through the walls. It explodes towards him - but doesn't burn him. He reaches out and touches it with what might be described as a sense of wonder.

End of movie.

This is the kind of thing that probably reads pretty nice in a script. Especially if you're developing the script, or producing it, and neither know nor care whether or not the Moon is actually made out of green cheese. There is a strong trend towards the idea that if you're dealing with a scenario even marginally fantastic, then whether or not the story is blindingly idiotic or not doesn't matter, as long as you can demonstrate a character arc that will satisfy the needs of whoever is putting up the money.

I don't regard this as a healthy development. And let's be clear - I am not suggesting all and every sf movie made should be based only on existing, known scientific information; I'm not suggesting you can't entirely enter the realms of fantasy, as long as its internally consistent with the world being created. But what we're talking about here are movies whose central thesis is that you and me - the audience - aren't worth the effort of adhering to even the simplest, most basic elements of storytelling.

And this might just be down to the fact that a lot of people in the visual arts want to be filmmakers first - and storytellers second.
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