Archive for Literature, Television, and Film

The Best Television I’ve Seen All Year: A Defence of Fanfiction

I watch a lot of television, or at least, I do when I get the chance. I really enjoy the format, much more than films, and I love how accessible it is, at least in theory. Yet I could not possibly watch all of the television out there, even if I wanted to, so I demand at least some measures of quality from those programs I do turn my attention toward. Now it’s very hard to know what’s quality just by channel surfing, especially since shows that are currently being broadcast can easily jump the shark the minute you decide to settle in for the long haul. Usually this means several people with known good taste have to nag me to watch any given show, although lately I’m willing to give anything a go, as long as it has John Simm in it, because hey, John Simm.

Which leads me to my first point. If you were to ask me what I think the best television show I have seen all year is (not including miniseries, though how you can tell the difference between a 6 part miniseries and a regular British season I’ve no idea), you would not get the answer you’re probably expecting. Because the answer is Life on Mars.

Whut? But that’s not got aliens or cute little robot dogs or even David Tennant!

These are obviously all sticking points for me, especially that last one. But it’s not like I’m saying Doctor Who is a bad show. It’s definitely not, no matter how hard Mr. Davies seems to want it to be sometimes (says the girl still bitter about Journey’s End and them never shutting up about Rose.). It’s a family show, it’s a lot of fun, it’s silly and heart-warming and occasionally terrifying (thank you, Moff), nowadays it boasts a frankly gorgeous cast, and it excites the imagination. In short, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

I consider myself sensibly minded enough, however, to be able to separate “tv-show-I-constantly-get-giddy-about” from “best-thing-since-sliced-Joss” or whatever the hip expression for really excellent telly is. So, Life on Mars.

There’s only one very minor part of Life on Mars I would change if I were the television deity, and all it would involve is fading to black at the end just a tiny bit sooner to make it properly ambiguous. Oh yeah, and never giving the green light to Ashes to Ashes. The scripts are occasionally a little bit melodramatic, but frankly if you’re stuck in 1973 or a coma possibly, a little melodrama is to be expected. A lesser show would have overblown Sam’s culture-shock and general moopiness to the nth degree.

Despite being a crime-drama, there isn’t an emphasis on gore and unrealistic serial killer stories either; in fact, there are only two actual serial killers in the entire series, and although they’re both obviously more than a little nutty, they aren’t the same unrealistic kind of crazy you’d find on CSI. A lot of the time the motive is gang or drugs related, or political (ie. IRA). Most of the cases don’t even involve bloodshed, although it’s threatened frequently. Once in a while, there hasn’t even been a crime. This is so unusual in crime drama that it’s almost the first thing anyone talks about when they discuss the show, and in an age when shows like CSI, Wire in the Blood, and Criminal Minds are making us think there are killers everywhere, it’s a refreshing take on police work that is significantly closer to reality. And guess what? Reality isn’t that easy to make interesting, so the fact that team LoM does so every time is pretty indicative of the quality of the show.

In the interest of saving space, I don’t want to go on about Life on Mars forever, just for a little bit longer, just in order to say that the cast is fantastic, the music is really exceptionally fantastic, Annie Cartwright is one of my favourite female characters ever, and I’m almost 100% happy with the way everything came together in the end (except for that one little thing I mentioned). Okay, preaching to what is possibly the choir complete.

Now, I read a truly embarrassing amount of fanfiction. Seriously, you should see my bookmarks folder. There’s a multi-level system of organization.

Life on Mars fanfiction takes up approximately 0.01% of that space. Given how much fangirling of the show I have just done, you might be surprised. Why is it that I have, I’m a little ashamed to admit, over 200 subfolders in my Whoniverse fanfiction folder, but I don’t even need a multi-folder system for what I have just defended as being the best thing I’ve seen all year?

Well, that’s simple. Skip back two paragraphs and re-read the last virtue of LoM I described: I’m almost 100% happy with how everything ended in the show. I’m certainly happy with all of the character arcs. Ignoring Ashes to Ashes as so many people do, I’m pleased with the ambiguous ending and I feel no need to resolve it in my head to something more straightforward.

This is very much not the case in Doctor Who, or any of it’s offshoots. After almost fifty years of television, novels, audio stories, comics, and awkward movies, there are almost more contradictions in the Whoniverse than there are facts. Trying to fit the title character into a neat little personality is like trying to herd an atheist meet up of Catkind, and even if you manage it, that personality is very clearly “complete and utter loony.” There are storylines that don’t make sense with other storylines, there is technobabble that doesn’t make sense with other technobabble, and there are character reactions (“I wouldn’t care if the Master died”) that don’t make sense with other character reactions (REGENERATE!!!), at least not without serious massaging. Even small niggly details, when examined more closely, are capable of pulling apart the whole tapestry. Trying to piece anything together into a coherent alternate reality is quite an undertaking. It’s a bit like religion, only prettier. And nobody makes laws based on it.

Although many people would disagree, this, for me, is the best part of fanfiction. I’m the kind of person that likes things to make sense and fit together, and I’m the kind of person who likes detailed character studies, more so if the character is superficially self-contradicting. And that’s what (good) fanfiction does; it takes a part of the show that doesn’t make sense and provides an explanation for it. Older fanfiction memes are replaced by newer ones as the canon expands, creating an evermore coherent picture of an ever less coherent universe. Really good fanfiction can even have predictive power.

It’s like science. Sexy science.

I don’t feel compelled to read Life on Mars fanfiction because Life on Mars, being brilliant, did all the canonical science for me. Doctor Who, bless its big cotton scarf, does not. And I like having the science done. I like having all the facts in order, even, yes, for a pretend universe from a kid’s show. Sure, I could fit all those facts together for myself – but I’d spend the rest of my life doing it and get nowhere, or give up, and if I gave up I’d just get more and more annoyed at plot holes, instead of actually enjoying the show and seeing plot holes as giant signs saying “INSERT FIC HERE.” So in the end, having fanfiction accessible makes me enjoy the show more.

Besides, one scientist working alone can’t invent the universe.

 

[EDIT: The above post doesn’t take into account the last 15 minutes of the Waters of Mars, which is proper character science, or a few other bits and pieces along the way. I’m talking generally, basically.]

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Just Because Everyone Can Die Doesn’t Mean Everyone Should

Yes, if you live on a crazy time-travelling island populated by a monster and several unexpected groups of Others, or in a sentient ship that whisks you through space and/or time to places of improbable and exciting danger, or a place built on top of a Hellmouth, or Cardiff apparently, you are occasionally going to be killed, sometimes just for the lulz of the bad guy. And yes, if you got hit by a car in your debut episode and might possibly be in a coma, or an astronaut, death is something that’s going to come up once in a while. And yes, if you are a part time Mr. Hyde, there is always the lurking possibility that you are going to kill someone…for the lulz.

So from a realism standpoint, yes, it makes sense that occasionally you have to kill characters that people like. Sometimes it’s because there isn’t anywhere else you can go with them or because you need their death to advance the plot and make Willow evil. Sometimes — as in the ridiculously long and probably never-going-to-be-written series I am planning, it’s the only way you can end a character arc. Sometimes they just have to jump off a building to the music of David Bowie (as you do). These are all perfectly acceptable and meaningful reasons for killing a good character.

SO MY AUDIENCE CAN HAS TEARS is not. Even if you’re Joss Whedon, although you probably get some allowances by apparently being television god, if your legions are to be believed (we people of the Moffat are dissenters).

It’s a cheap shot. It’s eliciting an emotional response for the sake of an emotional response, which is okayIguess once in a while, but if you do it all the time you’re not going to get that emotional response anymore. The first time they pretended to kill Charlie on Lost, I bawled. I even cried when Boone died. Admittedly I have grown up somewhat since then, but aside from being a little upset that Lost would now be lacking His Adorableness except in the obligatory flashbacks, I wasn’t too terribly bummed when they killed Charlie off For Good. I think I played up being bummed because I felt like I should be. I think I may have pouted in a bit when they killed off replacement!Charlie, or Daniel as they called him, but again, most of my sad was that it meant more screentime for weepy Jack and less (okay, none) for crazy nutso physicist.

One of the most annoying clichés of the horror genre is the slow creeping total silence lead up to somebody jumping out of a closet and loudly cutting someone’s head off with an unlikely implement (say a teddy bear). It’s annoying because we’ve all seen it a million times before and therefore know what’s coming, yes, but it’s also annoying because it’s a very obvious manipulation of the audience’s emotions. The entire point is to make us fear, which we tend to because we’re in the mindset. It falls apart because after the initial shock we quickly move on – it wasn’t unexpected or original so it’s hardly worth having nightmares about, or even remembering. It’s a superficial fear, and in the same way, the nth lead character death on a tv show or in a film leads to a superficial sadness.

And, OK, it’s fiction, but half the point of fiction is being able to identify with the characters, even the total bastards, and being able to root for them and like them and want to follow up on their adventures from week to week, or from one book to the next, or even just for the three hours that the film takes up. It’s really, really hard to do that if odds are good they’re going to be killed and cast aside just to make you a bit sad. Sometimes the good guys have to die, and we get that, but it doesn’t mean you have to make them die of fatal nosebleeds just for fun, or even mindwipe all of their awesome away due to some ridiculous technobabble that apparently doesn’t apply to 10.5 despite the circumstances being identical.

And frankly, I don’t think M16, the CIA, and the KGB combined ever had as high a death toll as some fictional groups. Real life has what we call “good days.” Some days nobody dies. Sometimes nobody kills you just because they’re a repressed nerd who should never have been sold a gun. Sometimes you don’t get offed by an unlikely case of the flu. Sometimes your Gay Lover doesn’t die tragically in your arms, even though it seems like nobody in the writing business is it all aware of this. Sometimes you go whole days without your life being in any danger at all, even if you’re married to Mr. Hyde. Sometimes you can go to a sporting event without being tortured by people in funny black robes who think that you’re impure. Sometimes even your supposed worst enemy repeatedly makes terribly weak excuses not to kill you when he gets the chance, and even saves your life on a ridiculous number of occasions, though admittedly this last one is usually true only if your worst enemy is the Master.

All of this leads me to suspect that these writers are either subscribing to an unrealistically dark view of the world, or believe that dark worlds inherently make better stories. The first is usually a symptom of being educated enough to realize that we as a species have some ridiculously massive problems and should probably have never come down from the trees in the first place, but not quite observant enough to notice that most people are at least benignly happy for most of the time anyway, and those that aren’t are often psychologically depressed. Most people get by, and tell jokes and go out with friends and like their parents at least a little bit and fall in love if that’s what they want and have very good sex without feeling guilty about it, or losing their souls. Most people, even in dangerous lines of work, don’t go dying all over the place, or weeping about all of their dead friends, because that doesn’t happen very often. Even children in third world countries who are probably dying of AIDS and starvation and being made to marry old men and have shockingly oppressive and disgusting mutilations made to their privates manage to crack a smile once in a while, and their lives (by all evidence-based standards) genuinely suck.

And as for the belief that this will make a better story: no it won’t. It will only prevent some groups of people from calling you out for being a crummy writer. You’re killing characters to make us sad instead of making an effort to come up with an emotionally powerful story in which nobody dies at all, in the same way that some people use an excessive number of expletives — or breasts — to avoid having to think up dialogue.

Sometimes people die, and sometimes your audience needs to believe characters can too. So have some realistic near-deaths, then maybe kill someone, give it a purpose and make it an important plot point or relate it to another character’s development, and then (for the love of Moffat) move on. Because sometimes, just sometimes, everybody lives.

(This is a rerun from my livejournal. Despite it being largely composed of nerdy fan stuff, I feel strongly enough about the main point to put it here.)

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