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Monday, December 31, 2007

Philip K. Dick in the movies

One of the things I like to do here is take a look at the stories or novels that inspire current movies. The stories usually win the comparison --though not always: most of the Harry Potter movies have been fantastic, while the originals are only so-so. (Feel free to disagree in the comments!) I recently got my hands on a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick ("Selected Stories of..."), a fun collection of Cold War dystopic stories.

Let me talk about three of them.

"The Minority Report"

When I went to see the movie, I thought -- well, there's a chance they'll pull off a good sci-fi movie. Nah. I suppose it wasn't a bad action movie, and well, it wasn't remotely as bad as "I, Robot" (oh, Isaac! How unkind fate has been to you!), but sci-fi? Three pre-cogs vote on the best future, and the movie doesn't even address the idea of alternate futures? No one is uncomfortable with the morality of jailing people who haven't yet committed a crime? Does it occur to no one that maybe, just maybe, if you told people, hey, we know you're about to kill someone, then maybe they wouldn't do it? Did anyone put any thought into this movie at all?! Other than the product placement team??!

(All right, I had to get that out of my system. Bottled it up for years. Phew. I feel better. It's OK. But: gah!)

The story, also titled "The Minority Report", is quite short. I won't give it away; the ending goes in quite a different direction than in the movie. But at least the characters acknowledge the difficulties -- physics, ethics -- in a world where people are jailed before they commit a crime. And best of all, the main character actually knows something about the system he's using. Apparently Tom Cruise never even knew the pre-cogs disagreed! Who put this guy in charge?!

No, wait -- let me finish -- ow -- can't suppress -- the truth, man -- mumble mumble...

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"

Don't worry folks, everything is now under control. The unfortunate outburst you just witnessed has been... dealt with. Ahem.

Well, here I have to admit that I never saw Total Recall. (Seriously. I don't get cable under the bridge.) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Total Recall was an action movie -- and I think it took place on Mars, yes? (I did once catch the last five minutes or so, but that was a long time ago -- I may be wrong.)

The story is quite quaint, probably more interesting as a foil to a movie than as a story in its own right. It's intended to amuse; there's almost no action. The main character, Quail, can't afford to take a trip to Mars, so he decides to sign up for a faked-memory program. The company will give him fake memories and plant a few mementos in his house: Quail will have memories of being sent as a spy to Mars, an agent for Interplan -- a real adventurous trip to Mars! Unfortunately, when Rekal, Inc. sedates him, they learn he actually did go to Mars as an agent for Interplan and had had his memory mostly wiped.

Oh, shit, they think, and do what any reputable company would do: "Sorry, pal, the procedure didn't work. We're refunding half your money. Please don't come back. Have a nice day!" slam!

And so the fun begins!

"Imposter"

Again, a very short sci-fi story drawn out into an action movie. (Yes! A movie! Same name. With that guy from CSI.) The movie itself is not bad -- not bad action, not bad sci-fi. It's not great, because it doesn't delve into any really interesting ideas. The kernel is there, true, but it's not examined well.

Both the story and the movie start out the same: Spence Olham gets arrested by his good friend Nelson -- military intelligence believes Spence Olham was replaced by a booby-trapped robot from Alpha Centauri, and naturally want him... taken care of.

Olham isn't thrilled about this plan. He manages to escape temporarily, but he must convince his friend, his wife, and even himself that he is who he thinks he is.

It's a neat idea. Unfortunately neither the story nor the movie really gets into it. What if everyone believes you are already dead, and you are a deadly simulcrum? How could you convince them otherwise? How could you convince yourself? The movie takes the technological route ("X-ray in ward 2, stat!"), the story takes the plot route ("Dammit, I'll find the real robot myself!"). Neither delves into the psychology -- wouldn't it have been great to read about a man tortured by self-doubt?

But never mind -- short stories serve as a little sandbox for ideas, a place for playing. For real depth, we must turn to novels. (For a more critical review of the stories discussed here, you might try The Modern Word).

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Dark Is Rising

Billy Goat and I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and all the best in the holiday season.

(Actual conversation at the library a few days ago, as I was checking out more than a dozen books -- Library patron: "Well, you're all set for Christmas, I see." Mister Troll: "Of course! What else are you supposed to do at Christmas, talk to people?" Library patron: "...")

One day down, one book down and I still have lots of time to talk with family. In the meantime, in the spirit of the season, let me recommend the best Christmas story...

Recommended: The Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper)

This is the ultimate winter story. On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the circle of Old Ones, born to seek the six Signs of Light. As Christmas falls upon the little English village, Will must stand alone against the full strength of the Dark.

The Dark Is Rising is filled with beautiful contrasts: the cheerful warmth of a family celebration and the sinister iciness of the servants of the Dark; the charm and familiarity of Christian traditions with the ancient, pagan symbols. This is a story for winter nights, to read snug at home, with chill and gloom outside your windows. In no other story have I seen Christmas drawn with such warmth and such iciness at the same time.

Ms. Cooper is a talented author. She is best known and loved for her series, The Dark Is Rising, of which this eponymous story is not the first: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark Is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree.

You may read the stories in any order, which is a lovely bonus (though probably you should save Silver on the Tree for last). The style of each is relatively unique, and Will Stanton does not feature in all of them. Of course, Rule Number One applies (no author is ceaselessly brilliant); most people pick either The Dark Is Rising or The Grey King as their favourite.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Stories

Like many Americans, I'm a big fan of Christmas. I'm actually a really big fan. Every year I get the Christmas tree itch sometime in October, but am inevitably reasoned away from pulling out the old artificial tree by someone less intoxicated by the idea of blinking colored lights and kitties who play with garland. In my opinion, this is a shame, and I'd happily hand out Halloween candy dressed up as a Frankenstein's monster in front of my Christmas tree. Rarr!

Anyway, as a big fan of Christmas, I'm also a big fan of Christmas stories. I wrote a dragon-themed reinterpretation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a friend in eighth grade, and every once in a while the urge strikes me to write another Christmas story. Unfortunately, I didn't plan very well this year, so I can't promise one for you. However, an idea's been skating around my head the past few days, so anything's possible (is Santa listening?).

As a fan of Christmas stories, I would also like to hear from you about some of your favorites. I've read a few, including Gene Wolfe's "La Befana" from his Book of Days and "No Planets Strike" from his Strange Travelers anthology, but I'd like to read something non-Wolfe this Christmas. So please tell me your favorites in the comments! I'd love to read them!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why TV Fails to Tell Good Stories, and How to Fix It

TV fails to tell long-form and complex stories correctly time and time again. That's a problem for me, because these are my favorite type of stories (Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five, etc.). Unfortunately, it's not a problem that is likely to go away soon. There are three simple reasons for this failure:

1. Television actors are unreliable.
2. Television writers are both lazy and unreliable.
3. Television executives are stupid.

Now that I've offended everyone in the television industry, I want to push even more buttons, and say that there are a few simple solutions to this problem.

But first, let me explain a little more about what I mean when I write about those "long-form" TV show mistakes. Here are three examples from the recent past:

1. Heroes season one was pretty great (not perfect), and it captured my attention like few shows can. However, season two is filled with blunders. To name just one, some random loser shoots the character DL in the beginning of the season, because the actor could not get along with the actress playing his wife (or vice versa), and she was the bigger star. This was a failure of an unreliable actor and actress, and it did nothing for the plot. Maybe Tim Kring, the writer, could have written him out better, but really, he's not the one to blame in this instance.

2. Up until season three, Battlestar Galactica was also amazing. However, season three bogged down like crazy with lots of unnecessary "drama" that failed to move the story forward. Now, this did not bother me, but it bothered a lot of other people. What did bother me was the final episode of the season, which revealed four of the Cylon sleeper cell bad guys. I thought the episode was great, except for the one problem that seriously damaged the series: Ron Moore, the writer, had not decided who among the major cast of good guys were sleeper Cylons until season three began (he admitted as much in an interview). This is writer laziness in the extreme! How can you hope to write a good, coherent story, with appropriate foreshadowing and characterization clues if you don't know how it's going to end?!? If there's one thing that annoys me more than anything else about long-form TV shows, it's writers who make the story up as they go along.

3. Babylon 5 was one of the pioneers of the long-form sci-fi TV show. However, you can easily see its screw-ups at the end of season four, and through all of season five. James Michael Straczynski (JMS), the writer, thought he only had four seasons to wrap up his plot, so he wound it down in season four. Altogether, I thought he did a good job with this. However, at the last minute, after the cast had been let go, Babylon 5 was renewed for a fifth season. JMS should have just said, "Hey, you told me I had four seasons, so the story finished up in four seasons." Instead, he went ahead with a bad season five, with poor replacements for some of the main cast that had disappeared. This is mainly a case of the execs causing disaster, although the writer could have prevented it.

Here's how the TV industry can fix mistakes like the above, and more:

Solution 1: Fire Real Actors, Create Digital Actors.

Real actors have egos that clash and get bruised (see above). They demand more money (like Bitty Schram, who played Sharona from Monk), or get bored, or fear they might become typecast (like Christopher Eccleston, the previous Doctor Who). They get sick, die, get thrown in jail, embarrass the show, or decide to quit acting and spend more time with their families. And you can't just replace them with another actor to play the same role, because audiences don't like that. Well, Doctor Who is an exception, but that's cheating, and has some consequences besides. Even with cartoon characters, it's difficult (though much easier) to replace a voice actor.

The answer is to completely digitalize actors, separating image and voice from the problematic individual. We're getting there already with the Pixar films, Final Fantasy movies, Shrek movies, and films like The Polar Express and Beowulf (even though some of these suffer pretty badly from the problems of the Uncanny Valley). Voice digitalization is still a big problem, but all-in-all, we're getting there.

After voice and image can be disconnected from individual actors, these actors become regular, replaceable employees. Sure, motion capture and acting talent will still be necessary, but the motion capture allows the actors to be in the background, providing data that can be provided by anyone with ability. Also, actors may have different styles, but the look of the character will persist, and I'm sure there will be software to digitally correct small behavioral inconsistencies, as well as actors good enough to adapt to the established character's personality.

Solution 2: Fire TV Writers, Hire Book Writers

Authors of books write better long-form stories than TV writers. This is largely because an author writes an entire book before the publisher publishes it. It also helps that there is an editor to read it all over before publication as well. When the author reveals that Susie is the murderer in chapter ten, and finds that Susie's homicidal streak is not credible because there were subtle indicators of it in previous chapters, he goes back and fixes those chapters. He cannot just make things up as he goes along and hope that the reader does not notice. Publishers and readers want more than that.

Now, not all the TV writers need to be fired, if they can just finish their scripts, or at least the outline with major plot points and secrets, before the airing of the first show. It would also help if they created plots that were a set length, say two, three, or four seasons, and let the story run its course.

There is a large pool of good writers out there just waiting to be tapped. Of course, there are writers who make the same mistakes TV writers make, but these mistakes don't usually show up in a single book. Rather, they tend to show up when the author writes a series of books, possibly trying to milk a proven set of characters for more money. To get around this problem, I'd say that the talent pool is large enough that these people could be avoided.

Solution 3: Tell TV Executives to Butt Out

Television executives have a big problem with micromanagement. They see something they don't like in a series, and they want it yanked. Or they decide that a series makes them good money, so they milk that cow for all it's worth, dragging it into season after season and squeezing the life out of any plot that once existed. To fix this problem, they need to butt out of artistic decisions, and let the plot play out as it was originally planned. They may not see the big picture of the story, or they may not realize that a risk in the plot or characterization may make the story unique, or have unforeseen rewards. They are not the artists, and they should remember that (and they might even make more money if they followed this advice).

Solution 4: Keep What Works

There are a few pieces of the television equation that work right now. For instance, if a TV story is not compelling, audience feedback can help a writer correct the problems mid-stream. Heroes shows us a great example of this. With season two, Tim Kring set up some lame subplots, mostly revolving around some boring and unconvincing romantic scenes. The audience complained online, and Tim Kring changed the direction of the show to make it better (he has stated so publicly). This is good, because improving something is always better than not improving it. Of course, the writer should use his judgment with this approach, because the viewers may not always have good opinions.

TV shows also often perform single episode pacing well. Audiences need hooks that pull them along from episode to episode, and the occasional cliffhanger or surprise revelation to build excitement. Many shows do this well. It's probably one thing that TV writers are better trained to do than fiction writers.

Lastly, there's the humor aspect of TV. Authors are good at dry humor, because that's what works in books. However, this does not necessarily translate as well to the small screen. TV writers have experience with the format, so this is another good reason to keep some around.

Conclusion

There's a lot wrong with the current state of long-form TV drama, but the problems are solvable. Some solutions await in the future, beckoning lucratively, and some are just common sense. Most of the changes would shake up the industry dramatically, and anger many people, but that is the way of progress. I'm all for progress, especially if it gives me the wonderful, evocative, compelling stories that television has the potential to provide.