Thursday, February 10, 2011

When being weird isn't enough

As an artist, sometimes you learn more from mediocrity than from masterpieces, because mediocrity forces you to realize what the masterpieces are doing right.

As I've mentioned in this blog before, I have been collecting and rewatching the original Doctor Who as its episodes trickle out onto DVD. Doing so has triggered some vaguely deep thoughts about science fiction as a genre.

Last month I watched three recent releases: “Revenge of the Cybermen” (1975), “Creature from the Pit” (1979), and “Planet of Fire” (1984). Although made several years apart, they all have something in common (apart from not being very good). Without boring you with the plot details, at some level they all depict planets where 1) a backward civilization lives in willful ignorance of the outside universe, but is now being forced to cope with some threat, and 2) there's some substance on the planet with special properties that is driving the plot.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most old Doctor Who episodes not set on Earth fit one or both of those two themes. And this, in turn, has made me realize just how difficult it is for science fiction to come up with anything new.

In the twenty-first century, the sci-fi/fantasy genre is largely about franchises. The loyal fan learns everything about a particular universe, and its characters and history. New episodes in a series reward the fan for recognizing references to previous episodes, and for following the characters' personal story arcs. It's about comfort and familiarity and brand loyalty.

But before that, SF had a very different agenda – it was about taking the audience to new and challenging places, and rewarding the fan for being clever enough to keep up. Occasionally a particular author would come up with a trope too good not to share with other writers – the time machine, the ansible, the Three Laws of Robotics – but most of the time, SF was a genre that took pride in expanding your mind and reinventing the wheel.

Or did it? The artists who most pride themselves on smashing the old clichés tend to do so in similar ways, creating new clichés without meaning to. (For example, “independent” films are supposed to be a refreshing break from Hollywood formula, yet they're usually about either disadvantaged folks struggling to survive, or advantaged folks struggling to cope with alienation. Or they're sympathetic portrayals of molesters. Or they're documentaries about how corporations are killing us.)

Sci-fi, for all its apparent potential, tends to follow a handful of regular patterns. If you want to be a bold SF visionary, and tell a boldly original story set in an entirely new world of your own devising … well, there are certain problems you always have to solve, and there are a limited number of ways you can solve them.

One problem is that of audience identification. Since the reader or viewer has never heard of this newly created world before, how can they relate to a character who inhabits it? Who is the hero?

There are three possible solutions to this:

  • The hero is a visitor to this world, and therefore learns about it at the same time as the audience. (He may be an ordinary person like Arthur Dent, or he may be a sci-fi hero who travels to new planets all the time but hasn't been here.)

  • The hero is a native of this world, but has been sheltered up to now and is thus, like the audience, learning the whole truth about it for the first time. (If the story is popular, as the original Star Wars and The Matrix were, a franchise may result, and thus the world becomes familiar to the hero and the audience.)

  • The hero is a native of this world, is fully aware of its rules, and lives a life that makes perfect sense to anyone else who lives there – which of course is nobody, leaving the audience out in the cold unless they're willing to work it out from indirect clues. (An arty and alienating technique, more common in novels and short stories than in film/TV.)

The first two are the most common – you can probably think of many more examples than the ones I've given above. The third is the hardest to do, and regresses into the second as soon as the hero tries to find out what exists beyond the world they've known all their lives.

Which brings us to the next challenge: What should the story be?

  • The first type of hero – the visitor – may come here to achieve some specific goal, such as a military mission, or a quest to find some sacred Macguffin. Or perhaps he's been brought here against his will and is trying to escape again. (Or both – in the earliest Doctor Who and Star Trek episodes, the hero must complete some mission in order to regain the means to leave the planet.) He seems to end up in adventure stories.

  • The second type of hero – the sheltered native – may be content with life when we first meet him, but eventually yearns to be free of the society he lives in, or to learn the truth about it, or to overthrow it. He seems to end up in political satires, especially ones where there's some big Soylent Green-esque shock revelation about how wrong this world is. His best hope is to get a franchise and have lots of adventures within this world, or find other planets to get into trouble on, thus becoming the first type of hero.

  • The third type of hero – the socialized native – doesn't get to do much. His story is usually a vehicle for showing the audience the status quo in this made-up world, so the writer probably won't let him do anything to disrupt that status quo. Instead of a plot, we get an extended vignette or series of sketches. If it's any kind of drama, the hero will try to break free, often learning the truth about his world and thus becoming the second type of hero.

Sci-fi is a genre where the characters, story and world tend to be developed in tandem. The author will design a story and characters specifically to show off the world he's created, or he will populate the world with things that are useful to the plot. Which brings us to the third challenge: What sort of world should the story take place in?

This is where sci-fi and fantasy start to get tricky. The author can create a world that is clearly based on something already familiar (as Middle Earth is influenced by Norse mythology and Arthurian legend) and risk being criticized for being derivative. Or she can create a world so bizarre and foreign that the author must put in lots of awkward exposition – requiring the characters to tell each other things they already know so that the audience will know – or else leave it to the audience to figure it out on their own (or enjoy the confusion as trippy).

SF tends to pick its battles. You'll get compelling characters and an engaging story, but an implausible world based on dubious concepts. Or you'll get a lovingly created world, but not much effort into making us care about the story and characters.

Of course, the cleverest SF/fantasy creators find ways of balancing all these different priorities, often by having stories work on more than one level. The Lord of the Rings saga is, on one level, a simple story of good against evil, mainly involving (as Kevin Smith pointed out) people walking. Yet there's a wealth of world-building detail and background information for those want it – look up Middle-earth on Wikipedia some time, and try to read what you see without going cross-eyed. You can be into Star Trek for the characters, or the action, or the philosophy, or to learn the Klingon culture and language. You can view Star Wars as childhood escapism, as a film-buff homage to Kurosawa, as a treatise on comparative religion, or you can just memorize the names of all the bounty hunters and cantina creatures.

However, those are epic franchises that have the luxury of spreading their storytelling and their world-building across many episodes. That's fairly common now. What seems less popular today is the challenge of combining world-building, storytelling and character development in a short, original piece – something not connected to a franchise you're already familiar with. (When I think of the better futuristic or off-world stories on Doctor Who, they either set a familiar type of story in an exotic world, or they design the world itself to be an intriguing puzzle for the hero to solve.)

Ideally, the world itself should be compelling enough – visually and intellectually – to keep the audience interested. The concepts should be clever and imaginative, the sets and costumes should be designed to tell us a lot about this world and what its values are (while being cool to look at), and there should be enough throwaway details to make us imagine an environment bigger than what's glimpsed in the story. The crappier sci-fi environments lack anything original or intriguing, and seem to exist for the sole benefit of telling the one story being set there.

Stories set in an invented world are not just difficult to make, technically and financially; they're also difficult to write. You must not only create a world that is interesting, logical and coherent, you must also communicate the rules of this world to the audience at the same time as telling a good story. With such a blank canvas, it's easy to lose heart and fall back on clichés, to spin yet another yarn about two alien races that want to kill each other, or a civilization that has a completely wrong set of values that can be quickly fixed once the hero turns up. Traveling to other worlds should be astounding, not predictable.

I guess a lot of this gets back to the old debate about whether art should entertain and reassure, or be challenging and thought-provoking. In the last decade or two, the SF/fantasy genre has steered closer to mainstream entertainment (soap operas and action movies) and away from experimentation or polemic.

Whether this change is good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but it's happened. SF used to be terra incognita for most people, but now it's been colonized and domesticated. Maybe this is why the alien societies on modern Doctor Who are polyglot spaceports (the spawn of Blade Runner and Mos Eisley) rather than the quasi-medieval, you-have-profaned-our-temple backwater planets often seen on the old series. The latter could often be quite atmospheric, but could also be lazy and laughable, as shown by the three dull stories I watched recently.

I've been talking as if sci-fi is supposed to be seem weird, but what if it's supposed to seem normal? Perhaps the genius of popular sci-fi is that it gets the audience to accept far-off lands and exotic creatures as everyday. After Star Wars came out, people reacted as if there had always been movies with talking robots, faster-than-light spaceships, and subtitled alien languages.

Maybe that's the hardest thing for sci-fi to pull off – to seem immediately accessible, without seeming dull or predictable. Maybe that's the sweet spot.

I'm still a sucker for weirdness, though. And if you will excuse me, I'm going to go watch the extras on the latest and freakiest Doctor Who DVD, “The Mutants” …

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