TMD's Creatively Named Blog
(Already bought IMAX tickets)
So I’m using this blog to spitball ideas for a paper. And no, it’s not on boxing.
What gets us hooked on a tv show? As in, what is it that makes you keep coming back? What was it about the shows we’re discussing in class — Sherlock, Mr. Robot, Firefly, and Daredevil — that made them stick (or not?).
Sherlock is an interesting case. Each episode nears the length of a feature length film, making it an odd hybrid of film and television. But the show hooks you early in the first episode. Partly because of the familiarity we as a culture have with the mythos of Sherlock Holmes and thus there’s the inherent intrigue in seeing in reinterpreted in a more modern setting. That alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough; fortunately it’s augmented by the incredibly interesting characters of both Sherlock and John. John’s characterized quickly as a war vet looking for a way to make life livable; Sherlock’s an insufferable genius. Because the characters are so darn interesting, you can’t help but to be interested in finding out what will happen next to them. Really well defined protagonists, plus plots that keep pushing them makes it irresistible.
Which Mr. Robot tried valiantly. You’ve got a character who’s somewhat Holmes-ian: freakishly good at something, socially un-adapted, something of a drug habit, insufferably, etc. But where Sherlock of Sherlock has various normal characters to balance him out, everyone in Mr. Robot is off their rocker to one degree or another, making protagonist Elliot seem, well, negligible. That and the fact that the show relies on really lazy storytelling techniques (creepy Scandinavians, diabolical Chinese, killing women for manpain, killing/threatening women because edgy) and mistakes shock value for actually value makes it much harder to get into, or to invest in to the extent that you can in Sherlock.
Investment then, like in banking, is key. It’s not so much as being hooked by a show as getting invested in it. Get invested enough and the sunk cost fallacy will keep you yearning to find out who the mother is even if the quality deteriorates. A lot of the time, this comes down to one of two things: Character and Premise.
Daredevil’s premise trumps its characters. Not to say that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk aren’t developed characters: they’re incredibly rich and compelling. Understanding them and who they are is a great part of the show. But the set up, that of a vigilante fighting to defend his slice of New York against crime, is what gets you. That and the whole superhero aspect of it all. You wanna see how this battle of good versus evil is going to play out and what twists are gonna happen as it goes along. In a sense, it’s a lot like Mr. Robot, only with better defined characters and the ability to actually tell a good story. Now, without its excellent characterization, Daredevil wouldn’t be as exceptional as it is; but it’s the premise that hooks us.
For Firefly, however, it’s all about the characters. Having nine well defined characters means you have someone to latch onto off the bat. Could be Mal ‘cause he’s hot, or Zoë ‘cause she kicks butt, or any of the others for a myriad of other reasons. It’s the characters that anchor you through the bizarre space western setting that’s interesting and all, but primarily serves as a backing for the inter-personal drama that develops. It’s set on a ship (which is a great place to set stories, by the way), forcing each nine to interact no matter what. Every plot is done to facilitate either character growth or conflict: let’s see how Wash responds in an action capacity! Showrunner Joss Whedon himself describes it as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” We get hooked on the characters and want to see what will happen next.
So what, then? Good television is a balance between premise and characters. You can’t have one without the other and shows that do it really well (Daredevil, Sherlock, and Firefly) have great staying power. There’s a hook, and you’re stuck on it.
So with my Rationale out of the way, I picked up Destiny’s expansion-sequel The Taken King and put… many… hours into it. It’s a huge improvement on the base game and, for a change, feels like a complete game with stuff like story and what not. Which is great, because Destiny had world building in spades, and now The Taken King is building on it and giving characters actual personalities.
These personalities are revealed through some newfound conflict beyond the original good guy Guardians versus the vague-but-evil Darkness. It’s still good versus evil, but now some of the good guys bicker. Zavala disapproves of Cayde-6’s flippancy who in turn thinks Eris takes things way too seriously. Little things, to be sure, but they add a depth that was sorely lacking in the game’s first year. Story is character, after all, and character gets revealed through conflict. Points to Destiny for finally showing an understanding of how that works.
That said, the game’s always been brimming with narrative architecture. The world is rife with details that hint at a great history behind everything. There are names like Toland and Alpha Lupi that show up in gear descriptions and bits of lore that hint at so much more. Oryx, a name that shows up here and there in the first year is the titular antagonist of Taken King, making a bunch of pieces finally fall into place. Plus, Destiny’s lore is incredibly diverse: the Guardians in gear description are woman, Chinese, and Indian. There’s a variety in the background.
But does this work?
The first year of Destiny seems to point to no. One of the biggest criticisms of the Destiny was its lack of story and no amount of world building can compensate for a disappointing narrative (I’m looking at you Elysium). Halo’s story worked in part because of Cortana’s commentary on Chief’s missions and discussions with various allies about what to do next. In Taken King, Bungie imitates their older games and gives context to the gameplay. Now there’s a more tangible reason for why you’re running, shooting, and punching villains. By making the Vanguard and Ghost interesting characters with personality too, there’s a sense of being part of something larger than just the mission at hand.
More interestingly, in Taken King a lot of small tidbits are given a larger purchase. Recordings of Toland play a small role in the story and make the prior mentions resonate all the more. Because now Toland’s not just a mythical name, he’s a mythical name with a connection to a character that affects how the story plays out. There’s a reason and a why to the details that color the world.
But then, there’s no indications as to what the Kessel Run is in Star Wars except that Han Solo made it in less than 12 parsecs. Yet it adds such a sense of texture to the film — it works in Star Wars. Maybe the overabundance of details wasn’t Destiny’s big problem, maybe it really was the lack of an appropriately substantial story.
Well, there it is. Ya gotta have story.
Anyway, I finished the paper (my rationale) and finalized my booklist. This is that booklist in all its glory:
The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.
But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.
It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.
Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.
Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.
Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.
Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.
So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.
Or at least get to Mars already.
I’m busy this weekend. I’m writing a rationale, essentially a jumbo-sized one of these blog posts about everything I’ve been studying since coming to college to prove that my studies have had a point (which is, currently, Narrative (Re)Construction). As I’m focusing an inane amount of brain power into writing this paper, I don’t have time for a proper post this week.
So let’s go back to before Essays, Not Rants! and find something old.
The year is 2012 and Josh is futzing around in unemployment and playing Mass Effect 3. Josh being Josh, he decides to write a thing about it. Which I’m representing below in all its three-year-old glory.
The close to the Mass Effect Trilogy came out a week ago and since then I've been playing through it. I've been meeting up with old friends, brokering alliances, and fighting evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things with the eventual goal of taking back Earth and saving the galaxy from said evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things.
One of the things I love about Mass Effect is the immersion. Now, those of you who've heard me talk (rant) about video games will know that I highly value immersion in a video game (that and cinematic/plot). Mass Effect does this exceptionally.
The man saving the galaxy is named Joshua Shepard, he was raised on a (space)ship and, I like to think, bears a passing resemblance to me. It's fun, I get to be the hero, saving lives, deciding what to do in circumstances, making big important decisions.
Then I watched one of my favorite characters die.
I was powerless to stop it, right? I mean, I had no choice in the matter, it was what the plot demanded, yeah?
But no, I did have the choice.
Instantly my mind backpedaled to a moment not to long area. I (as Shepard) chose to speak up about something.
I could have chosen not to. I could have lied and reneged on a deal but, in the long run, wouldn't that have saved my crewmember's life?
Guys, I could have saved him.
And then I realized that this is what makes Mass Effect so immersive, so real.
Everything I do has consequences.
I could look ahead; crack open—who am I kidding—google up a strategy guide and see just where each choice I make will take me.
But really? Where's the fun in that. Where's the adventure in knowing where each step will take you?
Hang on. That's like life, isn't it?
Everything I do has consequences.
For example, staying up till 1 am writing a piece on a video game (and then proceeding to go investigate the supposed defection of some Cerberus scientists) will further mess with my sleep cycle and result in me waking up late tomorrow.
Sure, it's not the same as having a imaginaryish friend dying, but, still.
I don't know what my actions will cause tomorrow. I can guess, I can do the right thing. But, like in Mass Effect, something will happen. Sure, I tend to doubt my decisions are as grave as Shepard's, but hey, they're choices nonetheless.
Writer’s Note: I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3 lately (when not, y’know, writing this rationale or doing other homework) and the choices the games present you with are almost as interesting as the illusion of choice. The game wouldn’t work with too many variables because, well, how do you program that game? Every now and then its inner workings show through, but hey, I’m really looking forward to the next game in the series. If only because the plethora of video game criticism I’ve read since then makes me super curious about the future of open-ended virtual storytelling. That and I love the Mass Effect universe.
A professor who I had, who I didn’t really like, once told me that I could probably connect any variety of works. But that didn’t necessarily mean I had an essay. Another professor said that you know you’re paper’s successfully if there’s a point that could be proven wrong. Most succinctly, when I presented an idea for a paper to her, yet another professor responded with “So [beep]ing what, Josh; so [beep]ing what?”
Which, y’know, is a really good question. I can talk a bunch about how Madame Bovary’s titular protagonist wants a life akin to what would be known as the melodramatic genre, but where’s the point? That’s what I had to figure out if I wanted to write a legitimately good essay. Well, stories are a lot like that too. You can have a plot and all that, even be perfectly plotted and so on, but so what? A story’s gotta have a point.
This is the big thing with action movies. On the one hand, we have Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road; arguably two of the best proper action movies, well, ever. Both of these movies have clear themes, which both amount to the ability of anyone to step up and be a hero, regardless of profession and gender, respectively. Look at the massive reaction to both movies, Die Hard remains a staple nearly three decades after it came out and is referenced constantly. Time will tell if Fury Road has the same staying power, but it’s sure looking that way.
And why do these films stick? Because the points made them matter. Look at The Expendables, it’s good dumb fun, but the only real point to it is that it’s really fun to see ‘80s action heroes on screen together. It’s pure mindless fun, and there’s certainly a time and a place for that (The Expendables sits proudly on my shelf), but I doubt most people will really care in a few years. Or take a look at Expendables 3, which dispatched with the famous cast in favor of younger ones; it was still mildly fun, but tried to be something it wasn’t (a movie about the old becoming to old and having to hand the baton over, but not give them the proverbial sins-of-their-fathers instead of, y’know, watching action heroes do action hero stuff).
It’s science fiction that rides on this a lot. Star Wars has the good old anyone can save the world theme driving it (along with a very clear good wins thing). Godzilla has a lot to say about nuclear weapons and is at its best when it uses its kaiju as a metaphor. Or, at the very least, most memorable.
Neill Blomkamp’s filmography may be a good example in and of itself. District 9 is plainly an allegory for Apartheid that has us sympathizing with someone who’s an obstinate racist who’s forced to confront the other on a personal level. It works so well because it’s not content to present institutionalized racism in another guise, it actually says something about it. Elysium, on the other hand, says very clearly that a stratified healthcare system has issues and… well, that’s about it. It amounts to commentary saying nothing, which you can kinda maybe afford in a weekly blog, but not so much in formal papers and films.
Oh, and for the record, the importance of interpreting Madame Bovary as Emma wishing to enact melodrama is that it paints her as a quixotic figure actively escaping blame for her own failings.
Pacific Rim is predictable; you’re not gonna win any prizes for pointing that out. It’s not like The Last of Us or District 9, which subvert the expectations of the audience. When you watch Pacific Rim you know what’s gonna happen; Raleigh and Mako will team up, something will happen that lets them prove themselves, and there has to be some last minute complication.
Yet it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and one of my own favorites. No, it’s not narratively groundbreaking, but it’s nonetheless great. Why?
Because when you dig beneath the foundations of how to tell a good story — y’know, plot, character, conflict, structure; all that good stuff — you get to what a good story is about. Namely, why is this story being told? What makes it important?
These are one reason why Edgar Wright’s movies are so great. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim VS The World may seem at first blush like simple comedies, there’s actually a lot more going on beneath the surface. Scott Pilgrim isn’t just a pulpy story about winning a girl’s heart in a world where the rules of video games apply; it’s actually a fascinating meditation on the nature of relationships. Sean of the Dead is about being willing to deviate from the routine. The World’s End is so remarkable because beneath its fun veneer of getting the old band back together and preventing (or, er, causing) the apocalypse via a pub crawl is a story about sobriety and growing up. Without preachifying, the movie looks at friendship and escaping from problems. Now, it’s not the whole point of World’s End — a particularly profane phrase containing Legoland remains a highlight — but the more ‘serious’ themes give it great staying power.
Not that the theme has to be ‘serious.’ Star Wars explicitly follows the Hero’s Journey, and makes no attempt to do anything really new. It’s mythological, plain and simple. But when you ask what Star Wars is about, sure, there are the lasers and spaceships and Wookies, but it’s also about a farmboy stopping the Empire. Star Wars resonated with my dad in the seventies and resonates with me when I watch it today because of its simple enduring theme: anyone can be a hero. It tells an old idea so exceptionally well and with great imagination. One of the reasons The Phantom Menace fails is, arguably, that though it’s cool and shiny and has all the trappings of a Star Wars movie, its theme is, well, murky at best and nonexistent at worst.
So Pacific Rim. The movie proudly wears its themes on its sleeve, if you’re willing to look. Amidst the giant mecha fighting giant monsters is an undercurrent of hope against imposing doom. When Pentecost says they’re canceling the apocalypse, he’s not just issuing a rallying cry for Jaeger pilots. Pacific Rim is expertly crafted, nothing lags and the twists are all in the right, albeit predictable places and it fully commits to its outlandish premise of mecha vs kaiju. It’s with its defiantly youthful tone that Pacific Rim really becomes a great movie.
There are only so many stories to be told; there’s a reason the site TVTropes exists, it’s why Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Thing is, there’s always gonna be a new meaning to stories. The whole prince-and-pauper story has been retold over and over again in different contexts with different connotations. The story can have been told before, but it’s what it’s about that makes it special.
grew up on a ship
at New York University
frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games