5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – TV Edition

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Treasure Island (2012), Doctor Who, Sherlock or Supergirl is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, I know it’s not been all that long since the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews but I’ve spent the last few hours banging my head against the desk trying to think of something to write for today and I’m drawing a blank so I’m afraid you’re getting more speed reviews today- this time focusing on the realm of televised fiction. I’ve picked 5 TV shows entirely at random from my DVD rack Now TV/Lovefilm/etc. accounts and have prepared for your information reviews of up to no more than three or four sentences each.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. They are not necessarily TV shows of the same genre, nor are they necessarily TV shows that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, crushed, blended and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Agatha Christie’s Poirot 

This adaptation of the adventures of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective aired on ITV from 1989-2013. While some episodes are more loosely based on the original works of Christie than others, they nevertheless bring the jolly charming and, dash it all old bean, sometimes dark world of Poirot to life in a way which is mostly lighthearted and easy to watch. While I prefer to focus on the story-telling rather than acting when reviewing TV shows, I also cannot help but point out how singularly superb a job David Suchet does portraying Hercule Poirot.

My rating: 4 stars

Treasure Island (2012 mini-series)

This adaptation of Robert Lois Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, boasts an all-star cast including Eddie Izzard, Elijah Wood and Donald Sutherland to name but a few. I’m not a particular fan of Eddie Izzard, but I must say I thought he gave a stellar performance as the dastardly (yet somehow likeable) Long John Silver, capturing the complexity of the story’s villain in a way which seemed natural and believable. They have been somewhat liberal with the plot for such a famous novel (some might say too liberal) but if you can live with that, it’s still an enjoyable enough watch. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but not inappropriately so. There are only two episodes, both about an hour and a half long.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Doctor Who

It is difficult to compress a review of this, since it’s been running (on and off) for more than fifty years now. It started in 1963 but didn’t really find its feet until the 70s when Jon Pertwee and later Tom Baker portrayed the Doctor. If you like light-hearted, imaginative (but not too scientific) sci-fi fantasy TV shows with lots of monsters and a colourful protagonist travelling through time and space in a police box then you’ll probably enjoy at least one incarnation of this show. If you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who enjoys hard sci-fi, you might want to give this a miss. Incidentally, series 10 of its current incarnation started just yesterday.

My rating by era:

Hartnell era: 3 stars
Troughton era: 4 stars
Pertwee era: 3.5 stars
T. Baker era: 4.5 stars
Davison era: 3 stars
C. Baker era: 1.5 stars
McCoy era: ?
McGann era (movie): 1.5 stars
Eccleston era: 4 stars
Tennant era: 5 stars
Smith era: 3.5 stars
Capaldi era: 3.5 stars

Sherlock

Many have undertaken to create a modern spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Most have made an absolute pig’s ear of it. BBC’s Sherlock is an exception to this rule. It is, understandably, quite liberal with the original story (mobile phones, blogging and other modern technological and cultural phenomenon play a fairly significant role in this series) but it thankfully avoided falling into some of the traps other adaptations have fallen into of making fundamental changes to who the characters and are (though they pushed their luck a bit with Irene Adler and Moriarty). Regardless, it’s thoroughly entertaining (though the last series got a bit silly I thought).

My rating: 4 stars

Supergirl

We’re just now nearing the end of series 2 of this adaptation of DC’s super-heroine, Kara Zor-El, cousin of Superman. I must like something about this show because I’ve watched it pretty religiously since it’s been on, though I find some of the acting a bit naff at points and frankly, I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t more aliens living on planet earth in this show than there are humans. Basically, everyone’s an alien or a cyborg. Oh and Jimmy Olson has decided to become a superhero too now… (?!). Socio-political themes are present and very thinly veiled, if that’s your bag. Also if you enjoy playing ‘spot the actors from previous Superman/Supergirl adaptations’, you’ll love this show too.

My rating: 2.8 stars


And that’s a wrap for today!

Until next time!

How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

The End…?

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

To Catch a Killer (A Little Too Easily)

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen the ITV television-movie Maigret or read the Georges Simenon novel Maigret Sets a Trap is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m normally quite fussy about reading the original of any story before I watch the film/TV adaptation. It’s not that I favour one over the other; I just like to get a feel for the original author’s unique angle on his/her story before sampling other people’s homages to it. That being said, when I heard that Rowan Atkinson was going to be starring as the main character in ITV’s television adaptation of Georges Simenon’s detective novel Maigret Sets a Trap, my curiosity got the better of me.

There are a couple of reasons I was so keen to see it but what really piqued my curiosity and what caused me to break with my usual tradition of reading the book first was the fact that the main character (a fairly sour-faced French detective called Jules Maigret), was being portrayed by Rowan Atkinson; a British actor best known for playing fairly silly comedy roles such as Mr Bean, Johnny English and Edmund Blackadder.

I will admit that it took a couple of minutes to get used to Atkinson’s face being so serious. His features are very striking and he has made a career out of comical facial expressions, not least of all in Mr Bean, where he has made an art of telling jokes without uttering a word. My disorientation only lasted a minute however. Atkinson’s acting and the general mood of the film were more than adequate to create the serious and mysterious ambiance needed for a good, solid detective story.

I do love a good detective story. I think secretly we all do. Mystery is very compelling. It’s what makes a detective story so captivating; something puzzling has happened and we simply can’t go to bed until we’ve had all our questions answered! That means, of course, that it is important that the reader/viewer of a detective story never knows for certain who committed the crime until the last moment (that was always my biggest objection to Columbo!). Those unanswered questions are what keep us on the edge of our seat. Without them, there’s no mystery and no story worth telling. Those detailed conversations you have with your family during the ad-breaks about who you think the killer might be and why are half the fun of watching a detective drama in my book.

And that, dear reader, is the main thing that ruined this first episode of Maigret for me.

The episode opens midway through an investigation conducted by Jules Maigret into four similarly styled murders. The victims have nothing in common except the colour of their hair and Maigret is, frankly, utterly failing to catch the perpetrator. And so he sets a trap, using female police officers as bait. At first, this seems to have all the makings of a good TV detective story; a compelling hard-nosed detective; pressure being applied to remove the detective from the case because of his failure to solve it; a series of mysterious murders that cause my wife and I to exchange numerous increasingly wild theories about ‘who dunnit’; the looming threat of more deaths; a dangerous plan to force the killer to reveal himself…

But then the plan goes ahead fairly early in the story, nobody gets killed as a result of Maigret’s risky move and someone is arrested against whom a truck-load of evidence is immediately forthcoming.

‘It can’t be him.’ I say to my wife. ‘It definitely, definitely, definitely can’t be him. It’s too obvious. It’s never the first guy they arrest, especially not when they find so much evidence against him so easily.’

So we carry on watching it for another half hour or so, quietly confident in our individual theories about who the real killer is while Maigret continues to hold and interrogate someone who we assume is an innocent man…

Only it turns out it was him after all and the person who I thought maybe was the killer is actually never actually seen again. Oh sure, they try to throw us off the scent by having another murder committed while the killer is in jail but by that point it’s painfully obvious that it was the killer’s wife who committed this last murder just to protect her husband and so we are not fooled and neither is Maigret.

I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take Rowan Atkinson seriously as a serious detective and was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. If I was giving out prizes for acting or creating the right ambiance, I would have nothing but praise for Maigret but when it comes to that all important story, I must admit to feeling like I had been robbed of a good mystery and I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the second episode (due to be aired later in the UK later this year) as I was about the first.

My most sincere congratulations to Rowan Atkinson (and indeed, all the cast!) on a very good and very non-comical performance. Hopefully the plot for the next episode, Maigret’s Dead Man, will do greater justice to the acting and ambiance of the first episode.

How Can Meyer Save Star Trek?

If, like me, the thought of a new Star Trek TV series fills you with a peculiar combination of hope and dread, you might be interested to learn that CBS has employed the services of the writer, Nicholas Meyer for the new (as yet, untitled) Star Trek reboot due to be aired in 2017.

Nicholas Meyer is no stranger to the Star Trek franchise, having written several of the original cast films. After the original Star Trek series was cancelled and Star Trek: The Motion Picture flopped, Meyer breathed new life into the dying franchise by writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Since the success of that film, the Star Trek franchise exploded into the phenomenon it is today, with more TV spin-offs, films, computer games, conventions and merchandise than you can shake a bat’leth at. Indeed the Abrams film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is replete with references to The Wrath of Khan, serves only to underline the fondness fans have for that particular film. I doubt I’m the only fan waiting with bated breath to see what kind of story Meyer is going to cook up for us in 2017.

Fans have been, at best, mixed in their opinions about the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Enterprise was, in my humble opinion, truly dreadful. I think I knew it was going to be dreadful from the moment I heard the words ‘It’s been a long road…’. I have a great deal more respect for the efforts of Abrams in creating Star Trek (2008) and Star Trek: Into Darkness but even these seem to lack the magic of the original series and The Next Generation. I doubt I’m alone in wondering if Meyer can again save Star Trek from dying a very slow and painful death or if it really is ‘time to put an end to your trek through the stars’ (Q in TNG ep., ‘All Good Things’).

Perhaps the reason the previous series have all been so successful (Enterprise notwithstanding) is that they were all very different from each other. Thus, even though they were all set in the same fictional universe, there was never a feeling that one was a poor imitation of the other; rather, they stand side by side to create the great tapestry that we now think of as the Star Trek universe.

The original series first aired in the mid-’60s and it shows, not only in the costumes, music and other stylistic points but also in the kinds of themes it explores. For example, through the depiction of a utopian future, issues of racial equality are dealt with again and again through-out the original series at the very same time that real-life people like Martin Luther King Jr. were actively involved in the American civil rights movement. Nevertheless, this ‘utopia’ still does not allow for female captains. In fact, the final episode of the original series specifically deals with a woman who wishes to captain a starship and, in an effort to do so, swaps bodies with Captain Kirk and is eventually busted because she was ‘hysterical’.

Jump ahead to The Next Generation and we see a Star Trek universe which has definite continuity with the original (no doubt due to the fact that it was created by Gene Roddenberry, who also created the original) but has also adapted to suit the period it was aired (late ’80s-early ’90s). Female captains are now seen on screen (although it is not until Star Trek: Voyager that we see a female captain in the regular cast) and we now also see that the Star Trek ‘utopia’ has expanded to include the disabled, such as Geordie LaForge; the blind chief engineer who is in no way disadvantaged or patronised on account of his blindness.

Since [being blind and wearing the VISOR] are both a part of me and I really like who I am, there’s no reason for me to resent either one (LaForge in TNG ep., ‘Loud as a Whisper’, parenthesis mine).

The themes dealt with in each series are by no means the only differences, especially when you begin to diverge into the Voyager and Deep Space Nine series. The creators of these two shows (both created after the death of Gene Roddenberry) very wisely shied away from imitating Roddenberry’s work by creating yet another series about humans exploring space on the starship Enterprise but instead created two completely different stories which complimented the series created by Roddenberry. Voyager, like the first two series, is also set on a starship, however instead of exploring the galaxy, the crew of the starship Voyager are lost on the other side of the galaxy and are trying to make the treacherous journey home. Deep Space Nine is also very different to the other series. This show is not set on a starship at all, but on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor. It includes a complex meta-narrative, far darker and more intricate than anything seen in previous incarnations of Star Trek.

When we compare this to Star Trek: Enterprise and the Abrams reboot, it is perhaps a little easier to see why both of these have proven to be so unpopular. In and of themselves, they are entertaining enough to watch but they both attempt, in their own ways, to recapture and update the magic of Gene Roddenberry’s original creation. In this, they fall sadly short.

We can really only speculate as to what the new series will be like, since CBS have been pretty tight-lipped about it so far. Enterprise and the Abrams reboot may give die-hard fans reason to believe that the new series will be a disappointment but I do not believe it is fair to write off the new series before we have even heard any details about it. Unofficial fan-made shows and movies such as Star Trek: Renegades and Star Trek Continues suggests to me that it is still possible for gifted writers who care about Star Trek to create a new Star Trek that is worth watching. I think what matters most is that Nicholas Meyer and any one else involved in writing for this new show remains as faithful as possible to the work of Gene Roddenberry while still feeling confident to go carefully, reverently and boldly where no one has gone before.

Accounting for Taste

I’ve got a confession to make.

I don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. There, I’ve said it.

The strange thing is that I generally do like long and complex fantasy and there’s no denying that Martin is a very good writer… But as I slogged through the first two books of A Song of Ice And Fire, I became increasingly conscious that I was only persevering with it because I felt like I had to; partly because in my pride, I never like to leave a book half read and partly because everyone else seems to like it. But when you’re really not enjoying a story and there’s still another whole five books left to read after you finish the one you’re on, there’s only one course of action.

Even as I write this, I can feel my fellow book-lovers judging me for (temporarily!) giving up on it and my fellow fellow fantasy-readers judging me for not liking one of the most popular fantasy authors of his generation. But why waste your life reading books you’re not enjoying?

The truth is, there’s a lot of snobbishness surrounding fiction. People who read literary fiction often look down upon people who read genre fiction; people who read hard sci-fi often look down their noses at people who watch Star Trek or Doctor Who; people who read anything at all often judge those who prefer to get their fiction-fix from TV than the pages of a book; most bizarrely of all, there seems to be some dispute about whether or not e-books constitute ‘real’ books.

Am I alone in finding this a little strange? No matter how much I may love fiction (and I do!), it is, ultimately, just that. Fiction. Untruths. Entertaining lies. Why, then, does it matter which ones we enjoy and which ones we don’t? We often speak of our ‘guilty pleasures’; TV shows or books we like but know we shouldn’t but… hold the bus! Why shouldn’t we?

I earlier referred to my dissatisfaction with A Song of Ice And Fire. I should say that I am not for one second suggesting that Martin wrote a bad story. It’s a very clever story, a very well developed fantasy world and very well written but… it just wasn’t for me. Equally there are some things I do like but feel irrationally guilty about, usually because they are mindless escapism without any real substance to them. Normally I prefer to read something with a bit of meaning to it but why should that put me off enjoying the odd bit of drivel, too?

So, I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time we all just read what we like to read, write what we like to write and ditch whatever doesn’t suit us. What you’re about to read is my completely unashamed, unabashed Confession of my Fiction Preferences (okay, so it has been slightly abridged but only because I like to keep my word count to under 1000 words per post).

My Unashamed, Unabashed, Heavily Abridged Confession of Fictional Preferences

  • I liked The Lord of the Rings books, but not the films.
  • I like fantasy in general, especially if it is based on myth.
  • I loved Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace and the subsequent 1959 Hollywood epic based on it.
  • I loved the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss. I’ve never seen the film.
  • I love Sherlock Holmes. I particularly enjoyed:
    • the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
    • The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
    • Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard Schaffer
    • the BBC drama Sherlock
    • Jeremy Brett’s unique portrayal of Holmes.
  • However I do hate everything about the CBS TV show, Elementary.
  • I am a full blown Trekkie. I love everything about Star Trek (including the Abrams reboots!) except for Enterprise.
  • In spite of being a Trekkie, I also love Star Wars (however I still have not seen The Force Awakens).
  • I love Doctor Who (BBC sci-fi drama TV series)My favourite Doctor of all time is Tom Baker although Peter Capaldi is in serious danger of becoming a close second. It’s just a shame he is wasted on the disappointing stories that have been produced recently.
  • In fact, I just love sci-fi and speculative fiction in general. Sci-fi books I particularly enjoyed included:
    • The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick,
    • Dune by Frank Herbert,
    • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov,
    • the Awakened series by Jason Tesar,
    • Becoming Human by Eliza Green and
    • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
  • I do not like disaster films.
  • I do not like horror films.
  • I do not like rom-coms.
  • I hate Twilight and everything similar to Twilight. In fact I hate anything to do with vampires which isn’t Dracula.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed The Illusionist (2006 film) but I don’t know anyone else who has ever seen it.
  • John Steinbeck is one author who can do no wrong.
  • I love Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The best actor to portray Poirot was David Suchet.
  • I do not like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
  • I got bored of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.
  • I think Harry Potter is overrated at best.
  • I do not like Friends (NBC sitcom)Sue me.
  • I never met a C.S. Lewis book I didn’t like and I regret that he didn’t write more stories.
  • Remember what I said about guilty pleasures? I like Holby City (BBC medical drama). Sue me again.
  • I love Doc Martin (ITV comedy drama).
  • I love Fawlty Towers (BBC sitcom).
  • I love Only Fools and Horses (BBC sitcom).
  • I like most of the James Bond books and films. Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond with Roger Moore a close second.
  • I like superheroes in comics and movies.
    • I do not care too much for the darker manifestations of Superman that we have been seeing recently. I recently re-watched the ’90s TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It was very cheesy but that didn’t stop me watching all four seasons.
    • The Amazing Spider-Man (films) were oh-so-much-better than the Spider-Man films featuring Toby McGuire.
    • I liked the first two Batman films. I wasn’t so fussed about Batman Forever. I did not like Batman and Robin. I love The Dark Knight trilogy.
  • I like the Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus.
  • I bitterly regret being the only British person in history to have gone through the whole school system without a single lesson on the work of Shakespeare.
  • Yes, I do think e-books are just as valid as paper books, though I will admit that paper books have a delicious smell you don’t get with e-books.

The Nightmare After Christmas

SPOILER ALERT:
Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has still not watched the Sherlock New Year special, ‘The Abominable Bride’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You have been warned.


I really hate dream sequences.

I can count on one thumb the amount of dream sequences I’ve seen or read in any story that I’ve truly enjoyed and felt like they added something to the story1. They’re usually only there as a cheap attempt to make a clever point or as a lame excuse to make the protagonist do something he otherwise would never do. At their worst extreme, they are the primordial slime of deus ex machina. Yes, I know I always say that it is a matter of personal taste what we like and if dream sequences are your thing then… well, I suppose I just have to accept that. But I hate them.

That is what ruined this year’s New Year Special of the BBC drama, Sherlock for me. When Sherlock first started in 2010, I was quite sure I was going to hate it. I had already read and enjoyed most of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and I wasn’t sure if a weird modern spin on it was really going to work (I mean, just look at Elementary. It’s an outrage!).

But I was wrong! I love Sherlock! I’ve got all the DVDs and have watched them often. It was also my first real encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has quickly become one of my favourite actors. Given how long we’ve had to wait since the end of series 3, I was bursting with anticipation about the New Year special, The Abominable Bride (in spite of the fact I was led to believe they were going to give us a purely Victorian one; whatever I may have said about Sherlock already, Jeremy Brett is the real Sherlock Holmes in my opinion).

At first, it seemed promising. The mystery was suitably mysterious for anything that claims to be Sherlock Holmes (a woman shoots herself, is positively identified and declared to be dead and yet she still manages to go about killing people) and it was entertaining enough to watch… That is, until Sherlock wakes up on an aeroplane and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a drug-induced dream state. Then it all goes to pot, if you’ll forgive the expression. Because it’s a dream, anything goes; and (I suspect) because it was co-written by Steven Moffat, pretty much everything does go.

Fan service? You got it. Here, have a random fight scene between Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

‘Big exciting uncertainty’ about what is a dream and what is reality? You got it. 

My wife (being something of a Whovian) often quips that if dreams were written by man, Stephen Moffat would probably write some cracking ones, in that his stories are nearly always very entertaining to watch, interesting to look at and feel like they’re making sense at the time but when you think about it rationally later on, you realise they didn’t make a whole lot of sense at all and broke most of the rules of their own fictional universe.

But that’s the trouble with dreams. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, the less sense they make, the more dream-like they are. Fiction doesn’t work that way; it has to make sense. Therefore, the dream sequences have to make sense (like in Spider-Man when Harry Osborne has dreams and hallucinations of his dead father saying ‘Avenge me!’ and he dutifully tries to obey. A dream about his dead father taking a banana out for a walk just wouldn’t have allowed the story to progress in quite the same way).

In some ways, that is one thing that set the dream in ‘The Abdominal Bride’ apart from other dream sequences for me. It was almost believable as a dream, which is what ruined it for me. The plot became too confused and fell apart.

Most dreams, such as in Spider-Man, are completely implausible as dreams because they make so much sense. Worse yet, they tend to dictate the actions of the characters in the waking world far too heavily.

Then, of course, there’s the worst kind of dream. It appears in many different forms, but I think you’ll know the one I’m talking about if I simply refer to it as The Dallas Dream. You know the one: the character suddenly wakes up and realises the last hour/week/year has all been a dream. This is deus ex machina at its very finest. The writer has realised he can write no further unless he comes up with some magical excuse to erase some unchangeable events that have already occurred in the story… so he just decides it was all a dream.

Phe-ew(!).

Don’t do drugs, kids.

Endnotes

1 I did rather enjoy Data’s dream in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Birthright’. The reason I thought this worked was because it served to add a new facet of humanity to the android (who is something of a Pinocchio archetype). The fact he was having dreams at all was what was remarkable. Therefore, the content of the dream could have the suitable blend of random and meaningful elements a good dream needs without becoming a weak catalyst for some reckless action or a ‘thank goodness it was all a dream’ moment. He also has dreams in the episode, ‘Phantasms’, which I was not nearly as keen on because in this instance, the dreams are his subconscious telling him what to do.

The Much Maligned Movie Re-Make

‘The book was better!’ was the cry.

You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.

Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.

So, do re-makes ever have any value?

It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.

For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).

Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.

He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.

I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.

To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).

So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.