All good things… Part 1: The Iron Druid Chronicles – Scourged

Endings suck both because there’s no more and because they’re incredibly hard to write.

I recently managed to read the final books in two different series at basically the same time and I’ve got a TV series finale sitting on Hulu staring at me in reproach. I always get lots of feelings when a story concludes and the only way I know how to deal with them is to write. So I decided now is probably a good time to talk about all of them and offer some of my thoughts on the pitfalls and difficulties of ending long-running stories while I’m at it. We’re going to start with The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne because that’s the one I finished first.

Ending a long-running book series is hard. If you don’t believe me just look at the examples set for us by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. Neither of them was just lazing about as they continued to write and write and write – Jordan just kept adding to the middle of his series rather than finish it while Martin has chosen to work on other projects and to flesh out the history of his story. If ending these things were easy The Wheel of Time would almost certainly be significantly shorter and might have been finished by Jordan. Heck, even when Brandon Sanderson took over the project following Jordan’s passing he found he had to write three more books to wrap up all the plot threads Jordan had set in motion and there were still some things left to be desired.

Kevin Hearne did at least manage to end his series. But he didn’t do it perfectly. If, indeed, it is even possible to end a series like this perfectly. Let’s talk about some of the issues he ran into and the ways he tried to combat them and how well he did. SPOILERS for the entire Iron Druid Chronicles series ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The tone finishes shifting

One of the major issues with long-running stories for which there seems to be no real answer is shifting tones. You fall in love with the tone and characters of the first book in a series and by the end, it’s completely different. In SF/F novels that follow this trope, you’ll most often see a first book start out relatively fun. The threats might be real but the hero deals with them relatively easily and maintains their charm throughout. As the story continues the problems get more and more dangerous, the mood gets darker and darker, and by the end of the series, it’s almost impossible to recognize the originally friendly, happy character with whom you started the series in the grizzled, bitter one with whom you’re finishing.

The most famous example of this might be Harry Potter. Despite being raised by an emotionally abusive family he was a fairly well-adjusted kid who made friends relatively easily, treated most people with kindness, and found pleasure in small things. By the end of the series he was angry and bitter and we only got a glimpse of the return of the previously mellow kid in the epilogue of the final book once he was years removed from the events of the story that had been told.

The problem is that this isn’t bad writing; characters grow and change and stories often need to allow that. That a character might become less happy after experiencing multiples tragedies and life-or-death struggles is a more than reasonable writing choice. But it still means that by the end of the multi-book story you’re no longer reading the style of story you fell in love with. This is absolutely a thing that happens in The Iron Druid Chronicles.

The tale starts off with a happy bookshop owner who, yes, has lived for millennia on the run from a deity in the Irish pantheon but for whom life is a joy. His only companion is the Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, with whom Atticus has formed a bond that allows them to communicate using telepathic speech. Oberon as a dog finds pleasure in the simple things of life and often reminds Atticus to do so, as well. As the saga continues Atticus finds himself embroiled in deeper and darker trouble. By the end, he faces the literal Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event in the Norse mythological style led by Loki and Hel (though these interpretations of the characters are very different from those in the recent Marvel movie.) The story also does not end happily at all, but we’ll get to that in more detail in a minute.

The ending of the story is short on details

One of the issues with ending these long series, as I hinted at earlier, is attempting to wrap up the large number of plot threads. For many series, each book will only resolve some of the plot threads from previous books while it introduces several new ones and likely won’t even resolve all of those, either. This means that every book adds more characters and plot threads to be tracked in later books. It’s difficult to wrap them all up successfully in a single book, as Brandon Sanderson found out when he agreed to attempt to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed.

Before I had even started the final IDC book I was ready for the series to be over. I had stopped having fun with it several books previous but I kept reading because I have only once met a story that got so twisted from where it had started that I gave up caring about the characters and chose to move on with my life. And the book reads a bit like Kevin Hearne was tired of it as well. The book reads as if the outline for the novel were fleshed out the minimal degree necessary to tell the story and then went to print.

The point that stands out most to me in this regard was his treatment of the Yeti. Through the course of the saga, we were introduced to five Yeti who turned out to be the children of Irish ocean deity Manannan Mac Lir. They helped with a part of one of the quests taken on by Granuaile MacTiernan, a druid trained and bonded by Atticus as well as his love interest. The returned to this story long enough to defeat a fire giant summoned by Loki to burn the world. Their total appearance in the novel lasted approximately 10 pages and three of them unceremoniously died.

60% of the Yeti in the entire world were killed while they fought and killed a being who was apparently the only or last of his kind. And it received as much “screen time” as bath and breakfast for Atticus’ hound, Oberon, received in the first book. I hate when characters return after long periods of time away simply so they can be killed off at any point in a story but this seems particularly egregious. This is not even remotely the only time this happens in Scourged, either.

Several books prior we received a multi-chapter massive fight between the heroes and Loki’s monstrous wolf, Fenrir. In another section of the final book the battle between the world serpent, Jörmungandr, and Atticus’ occasional witch ally, Laksha Kulasekaran, lasted only a pair of pages as Laksha merely possesses the monster and commits suicide. So Laksha makes a return after being largely absent for a long period of time to die again and does so to quickly end what the story had built up to be the greatest threat Atticus would yet face, as well.

Other prominent characters received a token amount of page time or merely a reference. Flidais shows up long enough to get drunk and start a bar fight before vanishing for the rest of the book. Perun and Leif Helgarson are mentioned but never seen.

Hearne may not have actually been tired of the story. It’s possible that this was simply a choice the writer made in order to ensure the plot threads were dealt with in this single book. Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s even possible to provide fitting endings for these massive sagas. The scope just gets to be too large to actually do it justice; events and characters get left out or are under-represented.

The story ends. Then it gets an epilogue.

Things get even worse, personally, for Atticus by the end of the story as his erstwhile allies lop off his right arm – necessary for a very large amount of the Atticus’ druidic abilities – following the battle. The Norse feel his efforts in the war were not sufficient for the crimes he committed. And it’s hard to blame them. Atticus didn’t just attack their pantheon and kill a handful of their gods; that would have been bad enough. He also enlisted the aid of the frost giants by promising them that they would have an opportunity to capture and rape Freya if they came with him. In his defense, what little there is of it, he hoped for and expected them to fail. He mostly wanted them along as a distraction while he and his band of heroes attempted to kill Thor.

Hearne does the series credit by taking this decision of Atticus very seriously at the very end of the story, though. Atticus is further punished by being banned from ever returning to the stomping grounds of the Norse gods. When Granuaile finds out about what he did to deserve the punishment she is disgusted with him and ends their relationship, as well. The tone of the story has finished shifting from a light-hearted romp with a talking dog into a full-blown tragedy. And every result follows logically from the decisions Atticus made. In a lot of stories a decision that, as gross as it was, was such a minor plot point in a story would not have blown up in a character’s face like that. Again, credit to Hearne for either keeping it in mind when it happened or catching back up to it, later, and working it back into the story instead of just ignoring it.

The story doesn’t end happily, nor does it have the tone it did at the start, but it does end fittingly. Could Atticus have made other choices for a better result? Maybe, maybe not. But this result fits the choices he made even if they were the only reasonable choices available to him. This is something he laments at the end to drive the point home. It’s a bit fatalistic but, again, it suits the story where it has come to rest.

And then the epilogue comes. Oberon gives Atticus an idea to have his arm restored and while we aren’t shown the fruits borne of the idea, we’re left with the distinct impression that everything will work out for him. We’re also reminded multiple times that Atticus and Granuaile are functionally immortal and it’s entirely possible they might get back together some day. The epilogue basically reads as if the editor told Kevin, “Listen. This is great and all. But you gotta give people hope for the ending they would have rather had because that’s what you do.” So rather than stick to his guns with the ending that was there or add an epilogue that suggested Atticus might find peace some day even without a girlfriend or his arm – something that would have been a great moment of validation for people who are missing limbs or don’t feel the need for romantic relationships – we get an ending that promises those things are still possibilities for the “hero” who “cocked everything up.”

There are absolutely worse things than providing hope for the readers who wanted to see a completely happy ending for Atticus but it one thing it did not do was make the story stronger.

Scourged isn’t a perfect ending for The Iron Druid Chronicles but is an ending. It’s also a good sight better than other endings we have seen to other tales. Hearne provided us with several terrific books before we got here and it’s good to see that he managed to complete the tale before the story collapsed beneath its own weight.

 

Insecure Writer’s Support Group: June 2018

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgePurpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! If it links to Google+, be sure your blog is listed there. Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can’t find you to comment back.
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!
Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say.

June 6 question – What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?
The awesome co-hosts for the June 6 posting of the IWSG are Beverly Stowe McClure, Tyrean Martinson, Tonja Drecker, and Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor!

 

Well, based my current WIP I’m going to say title names are harder to come up with. You see, I have named every character in my story but one and I still have no idea what the title is. The only other completed short story I’ve got didn’t actually have any character names but the title was definitely the last thing I came up with. When it comes to characters I can just pick a name that feels right for them. Maybe it tells the genre-savvy reader something about the character or maybe it just feels right. But it’s never really been difficult. That’s the great thing about character names, they don’t have to do anything.

Titles, on the other hand, have to attract an audience. They have to relate somehow to the story being told. They have to feel good, sound good, and they have to avoid being too similar to other titles. And as much as it feels like every story has already been told it feels even more like every title has already been used half a dozen times. Also, titles, with a few exceptions, can’t just be a string of syllables put together to entertain me.

I almost always wait until the story is finished before I give it a name. Partly that’s due to the difficulty but I think it also stems from my writing process. I’m not much of an outliner. I come up with a fragment of an idea and I prefer to start writing and see where it goes. One major flaw with this process is that fragments don’t always grow into terribly interesting completed stories. Or, indeed, into completed stories at all. But it also means that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give it a name because if a name describes a story then it’s important to know what I’m trying to describe and I don’t really know until it’s completed. I do, at least, know who a character is and more or less what they want to accomplish when I add them to a story.

Even harder than coming up with a title, though? Coming up with a concept, to begin with. There is a reason I spend far more time writing critiques and general thoughts about writing than I do actually writing stories. I’m having a lot of trouble feeling motivated to work on my current WIP, lately, because I feel like it’s too generic and uninteresting. I know that this is a common feeling for a lot of writers but what if mine actually is generic and uninteresting? How will I punch it up? Anyone got any advice for me about feeling this way and what to do about it?

Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Avengers: Infinity War is not only ambitious, it’s pretty damn good

They did something no other Marvel movie has even attempted.

Avengers: Infinity War is easily the best movie I’ve seen since Thor: Ragnarok. To truly understand the greatness of the movie I think we’ll have to, as usual, go into spoilers. But before we get there let’s get one thing straight. Alan Silvestri is a music scoring god. At the ripe age of 69, he’s still knocking scores out of the park. His work was tremendous in the terrible movie that was Ready Player One where he played up the cheesiness of the film to the hilt, highlighting moments that thematically matched Back to the Future with stings from that score. His work was no less tremendous in this film even though the intent and execution were entirely different where he dealt with a far more serious tone.

The movie is pretty dark, especially for Marvel fare, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding whether your kid is ready to see it. Or whether you really want to watch it, yourself. The movie earns that darkness with quality writing and there’s still a fair amount of humor but it’s something to keep in mind.

I also want to address the five points from my preview article and I think I can touch on one of them without getting into spoilers. If even that seems like too much for you and you haven’t seen it, yet, turn away now. You have been warned.

I worried that the movie would turn into a Transformers flick with tons of incomprehensible CGI battles. I can assure you now that that is simply not the case. Yeah, there are plenty of CGI battles to be had in this movie but the stakes and players are always crystal clear. The choreographers, costume crew, and animators all do a terrific job highlighting who is who with different costumes, moves, and frequent, brief pauses to allow the audience to reorient themselves. The movie also did a great job varying the scale of the various conflicts so that they didn’t all feel the same and when it goes big they really go all in. That might honestly be the motto of this movie, “Go all in, all the time.”

OK, so let’s hit the spoilers.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

I’m already doing these out of order so I’m just going to keep going with that to make things fit the new order I want. Cool? Cool.

Did they kill off characters just do prove Thanos was a badass?

The fear that got me started on the preview article even if it didn’t show up until second on the original list was that lots of characters would die for this reason. And I nailed that one. Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) die at the beginning of the movie for absolutely that reason and that reason alone. This was incredibly frustrating for me as I had just watched Movies with Mikey about Thor: Ragnarok earlier the day I saw this movie. Mikey goes on at length about how that film eliminates the chaff of the prior two films and reboots it with just the necessary and good characters. And then this film eliminates at least two of them without preamble. So, yeah, two characters – one minor, one major – killed off in the first 10 minutes of the movie and I was prepared to riot before the title had even appeared onscreen.

The good news, however, is that every other character death felt earned. Even the ones in the final moments that will almost certainly be undone by the end of the next film. Particularly moving was Vision’s (Paul Bettany) death – which happened twice. Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) (Elizabeth Olsen) must murder her lover, Vision, in order to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from completing the Infinity Gauntlet by collecting Vision’s Mind Stone. She has spent the entire movie trying to find a way around this but ultimately has failed. Just as she finishes destroying the stone and him he mouths, “I love you.” to her and it’s a gripping moment in a movie that doesn’t otherwise really deal in character drama outside this and a couple other moments. That isn’t the end of the scene though. It leads to the moment when Thanos finally drives the point home that he absolutely cannot be stopped (yet). He uses the Time Stone that he just recently acquired from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and company to reverse time until Vision is revived. He then takes the gem and kills him, again, without any hesitation whatsoever.

So you get a nice, strong bit of character drama, you are reminded once last time (in this film, anyway) how terrifyingly unbeatable Thanos is, and you are reminded how utterly ruthless he is when it comes time to kill people in order to achieve his goals. There’s a ton of quality stuff happening in that single moment. And it’s far from the only moment in the film to work that hard or that well.

The movie did chicken out when it was given the easy shot at Iron Man after setting everything up for him to get offed. Though it did it in a way that was traumatizing for the character and offers him new opportunities for growth and/or movement.

Was Wakanda screwed?

One of two climactic, simultaneous battles of the film took place there but it looks like they either never had any intention of allowing my specific fears to come true or they did some serious re-working. For one thing, perhaps the most memorable scene from the trailers, which provided the screenshot that became the headline for last week’s preview article, doesn’t currently appear in the movie. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his Wakandan cohorts were given equal billing at the very least when the fight came to their turf. T’Challa actually did lead the fight, Okoye (Danai Gurira) continued to hold her own with superpowered beings all around her, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) had a terrific moment when she mocked the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark for not thinking of something that was blindingly obvious to her as well as having the tech and acumen to pull off a tricky bit of malware removal that they couldn’t have hoped to manage.

The country doesn’t escape unscathed. There are fires and destruction all around the capital but for the most part, they held their own nicely. At least until Thanos used the gauntlet to implement his ultimate plan. When he destroyed half of humanity T’Challa was one of those who was killed. This seems like a huge mistake. T’Challa was already missing for a large chunk of his own movie and now, while it seems unlikely he’ll stay dead permanently, he’s likely to miss at least a large chunk of the next movie. Honestly, I would have been far more interested in seeing Okoye “die” in his arms and how that affected his character as he fights through the next film. It also would have been more believable that she might stay dead.

Wakanda deserved to have their hero be one of those who was front and center in the next film. It’s possible that Shuri, Nakia, or even M’Baku might take over the role. However, Black Panther made that seem like a pretty unlikely outcome. Even if they do choose to go that route or otherwise ensure that Wakanda’s heroes are able to continue the fight without their king in the next film, it’s getting to be a bit frustrating that Marvel can’t seem to let Chadwick Boseman develop any kind of momentum in the role.

Did many (or any) characters get interesting arcs?

This was the biggest question I had to ask myself when I walked out of the theater. Did anyone actually get an arc? The answer turns out to be quite different from anything I’d considered before seeing the movie so let’s break it down into two parts.

For one thing, some heroes were utterly missing. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Antman (Paul Rudd) got only passing references. Hawkeye is an original Avenger and he merits only a single line about being under house arrest. And he has to share that line with Antman who may or may not even actually have ever been an Avenger. Even worse, to my way of thinking, were the omissions of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi). Last we saw them they were traveling with Thor. They had just been introduced in his latest film, last year, and it seemed like they were going to be terrific sidekicks going forward for him. It seems unreasonable that they might have perished without even a tiny bit of screen time in this movie but we only ever saw one Asgardian refugee ship and it definitely got blown to pieces. In addition to that, it seems unreasonable that the MCU would want to continue with Thor as the only Asgardian. Hopefully, we’ll discover in the next film that they acquired another ship somewhere and that Valkyrie and Korg were leading the other half of the Asgardian refugees somewhere else.

The other issue with most of the heroes arcs is that they’re either ignored or repeated. Captain America (Chris Evans) has apparently been running his own version of The A-Team (which could have been an interesting stand-alone film) but is more or less the same as we last saw him. He was also, oddly, barely in this film. Tony Stark has reverted to the same argument he’s had with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in seemingly every film since the second: she wants him to stop being Iron Man and he can’t/won’t do it. Banner has lost control of Hulk, again, though in a different way. Loki betrays everyone he sees, again. Spiderman wants to save the world from threats that probably outclass a high school student and conflicts with Stark’s paternal instincts while he’s at it. The Guardians seem almost dull without their characteristic conflict.

It was a bit jarring to realize that absolutely none of the heroes change in any noticeable way and some reverted a bit. That’s when I realized. This movie isn’t about the heroes at all.

It’s about Thanos.

Someone referred to this movie as “Our generation’s Empire Strikes Back” and I can see why someone would say that. But this movie is far more like the prequels than Empire, except it’s actually pretty good at what it does with a couple notable exceptions. This movie reveals the backstory and motivations of Thanos, which makes him a far more interesting character. Obviously, his motivations are monstrous, he’s cruel, and he’s incredibly ruthless but you can at least see why he’s doing the things he’s doing and it’s for more than just the sake of ruling/destroying the universe. He actually thinks he’s saving it.

The second biggest problem with Thanos is that his plan is, as half of the internet has pointed out by now, pretty dumb. I’d argue that if you have a gauntlet that will allow you to change anything you want to change and you’re worried about the finite resources of the galaxy that it would make far more sense to just use this infinite power to create infinite resources. For one thing, killing half the population of the universe delays the problem rather than eliminating it. Living beings reproduce, that’s how they live. Half of the population of the universe will continue repopulating until they reach this level again. Is Thanos going to just destroy half the universe again, at that point? Also, if you absolutely must destroy half the universe and you have a gauntlet with powers that specifically control minds, souls, time, and reality and you’re “doing it for their own good” maybe you could do it in such a way where everyone forgets all those people were ever alive in the first place instead of in such a way that causes them to watch, horrified, as their loved ones disappear in a puff of ash one by one? Just a thought.

When you introduce an artifact as powerful as the Infinity Gauntlet – or even one as powerful as any of the gems/stones used on it – you’re going to run into plot hole issues like this. It doesn’t make sense that a creature who can control reality itself could ever actually be threatened by any of our heroes and yet he was. You’re just going to have to kind of ignore those if you’re going to enjoy the film so the job of the writers is to make the plot holes as small as possible and then make you want to ignore them. They mostly succeeded in this film.

Did it ignore opportunities to delve deeper when the story offered them?

Yes. Absolutely. Easily the weakest part of the film is the one moment where they try to be a bit deep. Thanos and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) travel to a distant world, I forget the name but it’s unimportant, they run into Red Skull (Ross Marquand, doing a passable Hugo Weaving impression) who informs Thanos that in order to gain the Soul Stone (no, not the World of Warcraft spell) he must sacrifice the one thing he loves the most. A single tear drops from his eye as Gamora taunts him because he has never loved anything in his long life.

Of course, it turns out that Thanos did “love” someone. Despite having dozens of “children” that he forced to fight to the death and otherwise abused physically and emotionally, he apparently “loved” Gamora. She realizes this to her dread just as he decides that his love for her will not allow him to stop his quest to save the galaxy from itself. He throws her from the top of the cliff, she dies from the fall, and he gains the power of the Soul Stone.

I’m sorry, but no. Thanos does not “love” Gamora. He is an abuser and a bully. He has abused and bullied everyone he has ever known. His feelings for Gamora might seem like love in his twisted mind but they absolutely are not. It literally (literally) gave me pain to see Marvel treat whatever he felt for her as if it were the same as love because it categorically was not. She was an object to him. At best, she was an idealization of what he wanted her to be. He never saw her for who she was and most definitely never loved her. They could have had this be a different kind of moment. A realization that what he felt for her wasn’t love after he’d killed her and that he’d have to get the stone another way. ANYTHING except to treat whatever twisted, vile emotions he felt toward her as if they were the same as love. It was gross and more than a little despicable.

The one thing I will allow from that scene that wasn’t wholly terrible is that when Gamora realizes that he thinks he loves her she does not for one instant have an, “Awww. He cared about me the whole time!” reaction. She immediately tries to kill herself to prevent him from using her. Then she fights him tooth and nail until her demise. At no point does she consider for an instant that his “love” might be a good thing or wonder if she should have seen it sooner. Good for her for never losing sight of the one thing the writers did, that he’s terrible and his “love” is not a good thing to have.

This movie tried to do something that had never been done before; make a villain the star. The fact that they even attempted this is impressive. How very well they accomplished it is even more so. I wish I had a time stone so I could go back in time and convince them to clean up a couple of these issues, particularly the Gamora thing which I cannot stress enough is absolutely terrible in every way, but it was a far, far better film that I had feared it would be. It was almost certainly the best of the “Avengers” movies, so far.

Ultimately, the way people perceive the quality of this film will rely heavily on the sequel; this was really just the first half of an incredibly long movie, after all. The number of characters who are returned to life as well as the manner and timing in which it happens will also weigh a great deal on how people ultimately view these two films. If my decades of consuming media have taught me anything one of the hardest things about writing a story is getting the ending right. You can see this in everything from Mass Effect‘s complete audience revolt to George R.R. Martin’s reluctance or difficulty in finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. If Joe and Anthony Russo along with whatever writers they get (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did Infinity War, but I can’t find listings for who will be writing the next part) want to really make sure the audience views both films favorably they’ll have to figure out how to stick the landing.

What did you think? Did you enjoy it enough to look past the flaws? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

IWSG May 2018

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! If it links to Google+, be sure your blog is listed there. Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can’t find you to comment back.
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!
Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say.

Remember, the question is optional! 

May 2 question – It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?

The awesome co-hosts for the May 2 posting of the IWSG are E.M.A. Timar, J. Q. Rose, C.Lee McKenzie, and Raimey Gallant!

Is it finally spring? Are we really, really sure? Have we checked the forecast for the next 45 minutes? OK, cool.

I’m not sure whether or not this season inspires me to write more than others. For one thing, I’ve not been writing for long enough to really know which season is my best season. I will say this for spring/early summer. There are a lot of big movies coming out and I like critiquing movies, and big movies make me feel like maybe someone will read the things I write if I write them soon enough. I did a thing about Ready Player One a few weeks ago, then a listicle about my fears for Avengers: Infinity War last week, and later today I’ll have a review of that movie going up. And, in a sense, spring inspired that because spring is the season for these kinds of movies to start coming out.

So I was inspired to write that way, for sure! And I actually made some serious headway in my current short story WIP last week, too. The first draft is nearing completion which is pretty exciting. But was it because it was spring? Or was it just because I was sick and bored? Maybe spring can inspire me to write by making me feel too ill to do anything else.

I’ve never been much of an outdoors person and I’ve been fortunate to always have air-conditioning and central heating except for four memorable, miserable years in college. So seasons have rarely seemed overly important to me. I don’t even change the way I dress usually since even if I leave my home I’m just getting in my car and going somewhere else where I will also be indoors. The extra daylight hours can help me feel more productive which might lead to more writing. Or it might lead to more doing lots of other things, too.

In conclusion, spring might make me write more, or it might be something else that makes me write more, or I might not even write more. Who even knows? One thing we can say for sure is that spring is a season and I do enjoy writing during it. I hope you have found this incredibly helpful.

#IWSG: Rewarding Writing

I get very emotional when I finish a story.

So this is going to be a bit of a different kind of post for me. Normally I’m critiquing someone else’s writing but one of my friends convinced me to join the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. My understanding is that participating in this group means writing a post about the art of writing on the first Wednesday of every month. So that’s what you can expect here for a while. Hopefully, this will give you a bit more insight into me and my writing processes as we go through it and, of course, you should check out the other blogs on the blog hop and see what else is out there that strikes your fancy!

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! If it links to Google+, be sure your blog is listed there. Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can’t find you to comment back.
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!
Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG
The awesome co-hosts for the March 7 posting of the IWSG are Mary Aalgaard, Bish Denham, Jennifer Hawes, Diane Burton, and Gwen Gardner!

Click here to view everyone in the Blog Hop.

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March 7 question – How do you celebrate when you achieve a writing goal/finish a story?

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t really do much with this particular question. I don’t celebrate when I achieve a writing goal (usually that means completing a blog post since most of my writing is done here and at Royals Review) or when I finish a story. I just… move on to the next thing on my list. But it did get me thinking about how I react to the endings of stories when I consume them.

I have two basic reactions with varying levels of intensity based on a couple of factors. If the story stops without being completed or has a bad ending I usually get pretty upset. I refused to seriously consider purchasing Mass Effect: Andromeda after the travesty that was the ending of Mass Effect 3 despite being a huge fan of BioWare, the development company, and the Mass Effect series in general. I’ll also never forget my summer break between Freshman and Sophomore years at college when my sister suggested I binge watch the Dark Angel TV series starring Jessica Alba. She loaned me her DVDs – this was before the days of streaming TV – and I quickly watched the first two seasons of the series. I eagerly returned her discs and asked to borrow the next season. That’s when I discovered that Dark Angel, whose second season ended on a massive cliffhanger, did not have a third season. The show had been canceled. I didn’t speak to my sister for the rest of the summer and it was the very first time I can recall seriously considering that I might want to write something creative; I really wanted to know the ending of that story, even if I had to write it myself.

But when a story actually finishes my reaction is almost universally that of sadness. The amount of sadness depends on how much I enjoyed it. When I finished Final Fantasy Type-0, for example, I was still pretty sad even though if you followed along with my videos and handful of blog posts I pretty clearly hadn’t enjoyed the game very much. On the other hand, when I finished Titan A.E. the second time – when I was old enough to better appreciate it – I was devastated. In both cases I followed my regular pattern for dealing with the loss of a story: I started googling the name of the story all over the place looking for supplementary material. That is one of the reasons I can appreciate Japanese media (primarily video games and anime) so much; there’s always tons of supplementary material.

Seriously. Google an anime, some time, if you never have. They’re almost always based on a manga which will have similar and additional stories since the anime frequently primarily serve as advertisements for them. Frequently there are light novel adaptations, as well. There will be wikis with extra info, sequel movies, prequel movies, spin-off anime, and Original Video Animations, also known as OVAs. Brandon Sanderson is my favorite author for similar reasons. I was sad at the end of the original Mistborn trilogy. Good news! There’s a sequel trilogy – which has now expanded to five books – and author Brandon Sanderson sets most of his books in a shared universe known as The Cosmere so even if there aren’t direct sequels there’s a fair chance I’ll see some of my favorite characters making cameos in other series.

That instinct to find more even when the story is complete also contributes to my writing, here. What better way to keep the thing I love alive than to write my own thoughts, praise, and criticism regarding it? I suppose I could write fan-fictions but ever since an ill-fated attempt to write a Star Trek fanfic when I was 13 I’ve mostly avoided such endeavors.

So now I’m going to do something I don’t usually do. I dislike leaving call-outs for comments too often because I think it can come across really needy. But I’m curious, what do some of you feel and do when you finish a story? Are you happy, sad, or indifferent? Do you obsess over it for weeks or months? Insist all your friends give it a try? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

Space Pirate: Harlock, Game of Thrones, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

For starters, we probably shouldn’t commonly leave the “willing” part out of the definition.

As an actor, a writer, and a nitpicker of stories in every imaginable medium it probably does not surprise you to learn that I have plentiful and strong thoughts on the willing suspension of disbelief. Before we continue, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page as to what that even is. Wikipedia puts it pretty succinctly:

The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

There’s a lot to unpack in even that simple sentence. For starters, as you can see,  the term has two forms. One of them includes the word “willing” while the other omits it. I and many others learned it that first way but I would argue now that the “willing” part is crucial to the definition. When Game of Thrones ran into some criticism for the way it handled its penultimate episode, last season, the director responded with his own criticism of the fans. This was a mistake on his part for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that insulting your fanbase rarely seems like a wise course of action. But beyond that, he was also wrong. It isn’t the audience’s job to suspend their disbelief for whatever you put on the screen. It is your job as the creative staff to make them want to suspend their disbelief. In other words, to make them willing.

This willingness usually exists on a spectrum depending upon content and vehicle.

There is actually an interesting spectrum upon which you have more or fewer restrictions on how far you must go to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief. Consider, for a moment, whether you would willingly suspend your disbelief if a movie you were watching used obvious drop curtains and plyboard sets with frequent pauses where crew members could be seen shifting things around in order to set up the next scene.  Probably not, right? But you do that for the majority of stage plays you see and don’t even think twice about it. Why is that?

The willing suspension of disbelief also takes into account venue and subject matter. This means that a stage play is held to entirely different set of standards than a TV show or a movie. Other examples are cartoons vs. live-action, kids movies vs. more adult-themed fare, and comedies vs. dramas. I was recently watching Space Pirate: Harlock and was particularly struck by a particular moment in that film – one of the twists in that movie, actually. *** SPOILERS FOR SPACE PIRATE: HARLOCK*** In the last part of the film it is finally revealed that the earth has been destroyed by liberal application of dark matter. In real life no one actually has a clue what dark matter is or whether it even exists, but because science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy the writers of this movie chose to re-define it as a destructive substance. We find out that sometime before the movie started the titular space pirate piloted his vessel into some dark matter, as well, when he felt regret over the part he had played in destroying the earth. However, he came out the other side with a ship that was now indestructible and had had its entire front-end replaced with a giant skull and crossbones rather than being destroyed. Imagine for a moment that that had happened in Star Trek. That franchise takes itself pretty seriously and it would be unreasonable to expect its audience to just go along for that ride as it seems patently obvious that whatever dark matter is it isn’t something that would simultaneously destroy a planet but render a spaceship indestructible and re-design the front half. *** END SPOILERS *** However, because Space Pirate: Harlock doesn’t really bill itself as a super realistic take on the genre even I, the super nitpicker extraordinaire, didn’t bat an eye when this reveal was made.

I have determined that if you disregard the complexities of sub-genre, vehicle of story, and setting there are two hard and fast rules when it comes to establishing a willing suspension of disbelief in your audience:

  1. Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.
  2. Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.

The Game of Thrones director from earlier also seemed to think that because the audience was willing to believe in dragons that they should be willing to ignore any plot holes or time inconsistencies that appear in their fantasy stories. As I argued at the time both here and on Twitter, story universes, even fantasies, must remain internally and logically consistent. Plot holes are still plot holes. Writers, depending on the universe they set themselves in, get to work with a certain set of pre-established rules, environments, and creatures. For example, if you set a story in medieval England and market it to a western audience you usually won’t have to completely re-establish castles, moats, forests, horses, rain, etc. Your audience will grasp these things using cultural consciousness. Cultural consciousness can be a bit of a complicated topic but for now, you just need to understand that, for example, almost everyone in America and England knows what a castle is even if they’ve never seen one in person and most of them can’t remember when or how they first gained that knowledge. That’s an aspect of cultural consciousness. Something we know about because of our culture.

Now one of the joys of being a writer, especially in the fantasy genres and sub-genres, is that you can add new definitions and re-define existing ideas that break away from the logical consistency defined by the cultural consciousness. For example, if your story is set in a fantasy variant of medieval England perhaps your moats are always populated by sarcastic mermaids. And if you establish it in your story before it becomes important to a climax in the plot, your audience will probably not bat an eye at this change. (This is also known as foreshadowing when a writer establishes something that is actually plausible both in the collective consciousness and in the story but might otherwise seem abrupt in an important reveal, later.) There are two important keys in that sentence that I don’t want you to miss, though. You must establish it. And you must establish it before it becomes important to a climax. Otherwise, you’re still dealing with a plot hole, even if it’s a fantasy story.

Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

So in Game of Thrones up until that fateful episode the creators were willing to let the cultural consciousness define their ravens for them. What that means is that everyone perceived the ravens in the show as being identical to the everyday birds we are all familiar with. If they had really meant to include supersonic ravens they needed to be established. But even if they had chosen to establish such creatures at that moment, it still would have been a writing faux pas. When you fail to establish something like that until it becomes critical to the plot, especially as it pertains to resolving climaxes or saving protagonists, you are performing what is known as a Deus Ex Machina which is Greek for “God from Machine”. It turns out the ancient Greeks weren’t, as a whole, necessarily any better writers than the ones we have now. Some were great but others had failings. Sometimes writers write themselves into a hole and have no idea what to do to resolve the plot. It was at this moment that some ancient Greek writers would write a scene in which a god or gods would be dropped into or above the set using a machine and they would simply assign the outcomes the playwright desired regardless of how much trouble the story or characters were in. For a modern example of what this might look like we need look no further than the Mass Effect 3 ending.

*** SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3 *** 

In that game, the crew of the Normandy is tasked with gathering allies and resources to build some sort of mystery machine with undefined capabilities in order to fend off the enemy Reaper fleet. By the end of the game the machine is built and still no one has a clue what it might actually do to help preserve the galaxy – this should be reminding you of the first rule of the willing suspension of disbelief in regards to fantasy elements. Shepard turns the mystery device on at the last moment and… a simulacrum of a child appears which offers Shepard three impossibly simple choices with which to conclude the story. This seems almost a direct ripoff of the original Deus Ex Machina where a god-like being appears for no discernible reason established within the story to neatly ties up all the loose ends. It is simply adapted to the medium of video games and Mass Effect’s primary conceit of player choice. At least the Greeks had preestablished tropes of such gods doing those kinds of things in the beginnings and middles of even better-written stories when they implemented such poorly-written endings.

*** END SPOILERS ***

 

No matter the story a creator must rely on some willing suspension of disbelief from their audience. Even in something as simple as a story about a love triangle between three high school students you must convince your audience that they want to believe these fictional characters actually exist. As long as people are creating stories that need the willing suspension of disbelief they must remember to establish or foreshadow and to do it before it becomes vital to the plot. Or else I’ll come for them with mouse and keyboard and crit them with my Wall of Text.

 

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Review

There is still lots to do, but overall it was pretty dang good.

Star Trek, as a franchise, typically starts veeeeery slowly. The first seasons of the series are generally a slog to get through, even when they contain a few terrific episodes. This even holds true with the movies as well where The Motion Picture and Generations are easily the two dullest movies in their respective timelines. 2009’s reboot was by no means slow but more discussion about the reboot movies will have to come another time. Suffice to say I view them differently from the rest of the franchise.

Yes, before you all start picking at me I said dullest not worst. I maintain, however, that The Final Frontier gave us one of the best lines of all time:

Anyway.

If Star TrekDiscovery‘s first season is it’s worst or slowest then we’re either going to end up with the best Star Trek, yet or everything just might fly entirely out of control. Discovery already easily holds the record for the quickest a Star Trek series has ever made me fall in love. That being said I want to dig into some specifics as to what made this season good and what they’ll need to work on, next year. We’ll start with the bad because I want to end on a positive note. Of course, there will be spoilers for the entire season.

Spoilers Banner

The Bad

LGBT Representation

I already went on, at length, in the season finale recap earlier this week about how they really screwed up when they decided to reinforce decades-old stereotypes about people who like sex being evil especially bisexuals who also just always want to have sex with as many people as possible. I also noted that they had already abused the “Bury Your Gays” trope earlier this season. I had promised I was going to expand on that and I promise I was going to. But the fact of the matter is nothing I write could compare to what was already written by Andi over at Women at Warp (Warning, possible future spoilers from creator interviews). So just read what they had to say on the subject and know that I agree with them 100%.

Representation of Women and Minorities

The show proudly features a black woman, Sonequa Martin-Green, as it’s first-among-ensemble. And yet the show hasn’t exactly treated women or minorities with a lot of kindness so far. The show started off well by putting an Asian woman in command of a ship and making a black woman her first officer but by the end of the fourth episode the commander was a convicted felon, the captain had died, and the female security chief of the Discovery who was only introduced in the third episode had been killed. The only black male in the ensemble was also killed before the season ended. Compare this to only one white dude getting stabbed.

The finale wants to be a redemption of women where it has Michael Burnham (played by Martin-Green), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) all being the primary drivers of the action and the final resolution. Which is great except for the part where Georgiou gets undercut by the aforementioned Depraved Bisexual trope and Cornwell looks indecisive as she goes along with whichever plan is handed to her last with very little debate or apparent thought on her part. We do at least see Tilly get her well-deserved place on the command track and Burnham gets her commission back but it isn’t the total victory it should have been.

When I wrote before the show came back from its winter hiatus I also talked about the history of Star Trek as a predictor of social equality and a platform for social justice advocacy throughout the decades. The people behind Discovery have made it very clear that they aren’t just here to steal the franchise name for their own profit; they actually want to continue that proud heritage. I believe them and it isn’t like Star Trek has always been absolutely perfect in this score, either. But the show must continue to try to improve on these scores as it continues into next season.

The Awkward

In the context of the entire season, the entire mirror universe tangent now feels incredibly pointless. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how it’s supposed to play into Michael’s growing understanding about the need for principles in Starfleet and the Federation but it’s kind of overkill to spend 4 episodes in an alternate dimension for only that. And that’s pretty much all that’s accomplished, there.

Yes, the Lorca reveal was really cool when it first happened. But in retrospect, it fails to continue to impact the show. His coup attempt was short lived and everyone on the Discovery was wary of him to begin with, so the betrayal doesn’t really have any continuing effect on the crew once he was dealt with. Taken in the context of the whole season it also feels incredibly out-of-place to so completely forget about the Klingon War for a little bit more than a quarter of the season when that is the only thing anyone can talk about or act upon for the entire rest of the time.

The Good

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

If the four episodes of the Mirror Universe end up being unsatisfactory filler, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a terrific example of how filler can be done even in a high-tension, serialized show like this. Unlike the Mirror Universe episodes, it doesn’t completely ignore the primary matter of the season. It tells us more about more characters than the Mirror Universe does in a fraction of the time. Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Burnham, and Lieutenant  Tyler (Shazad Latif) all show the audience more of who they are. I anticipate Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd, who we learned much more about as well, will be a recurring character in the future. Finally, it includes probably the best call-back to the Original Series in a season of television where such references were liberally sprinkled throughout.

The characters and acting

There is not a bad actor in the entire cast of this show. The writers gave them quality material, for the most part, and they all absolutely made the most of it. Sonequa Martin-Green nailed down the idea of Michael Burnham as a human who wished at times to be Vulcan as perfectly as Leonard Nimoy portrayed the first Vulcan and threw in some terrific sass and internal conflict at other points. Jason Isaacs gave us an anti-hero-turned-villain Captain Lorca that had us all fooled as to how good or evil he was until the very last moment without ever lying to us. Jayne Brook’s Admiral Cornwell was the rare fictional female character who was tough as nails without ever being masculine or cruel. Michelle Yeoh delivered two very different, very distinct interpretations of Phillipa Georgiou with terrific gravitas. In very limited screen time Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber made many fans fall in love with the caring, capable doctor. Mary Chieffo did a terrific job delivering a L’Rell who was a true believer but not a mindless zealot.

I want to pay special attention to four others of the cast, though. Shazad Latif was simply amazing as Ash Tyler and Voq but particularly when Tyler was at his most emotionally vulnerable. It takes near perfect balance to find the place where you’ve gone far enough but not so far that it slips into farce and Latif walked that line beautifully. Anthony Rapp’s interpretation of Paul Stamets had so much depth. There was a living energy to his performances that can be lacking from lesser actors. He also stayed away from being a one-note character. It could have been really easy for Stamets to be a gentle, forgetful scientist for the entire series. But at the beginning when he’s the most frustrated with his work and with the circumstances he is in he is very cantankerous. When Tyler apologizes to him for the death of Culber he could have played it much more gently if he wanted. Instead, there was a cold rage behind his eyes that cause me to lean back a bit, even viewing it on my computer screen.

Mary Wiseman showed a tremendous knack for comedic timing without ever letting Tilly devolve into simply being the comedic relief. She grew the character from an annoying chatterbox at the beginning into an insightful, decisive crew member by the end of the season without sacrificing her youthful exuberance. And finally, Doug Jones did a terrific job with Saru. I have many complaints about the way the writers choose to use his “threat ganglia” but there can be no questioning the care Mr. Jones takes in his craft. Saru starts the series in a bit over his head and it only gets worse for a bit. He starts as an exceptionally competent bureaucrat who wants to be a leader; he backs down from every confrontation and when he’s forced into command he allows his fears to pressure him into making poor choices. But gradually as the series continues without ever foisting an “Aha!” moment on him Saru learns to face his fears and to truly lead his crew. By the end of the season, he is a true leader. That lack of the “Aha!” moment is so key for how great this ends up being. Those things rarely happen in real life; eventually, you just look back and realize you are different than you were. Sometimes you can see some of the steps that happened along the way but it’s rarely about just a single moment. Because no such moment was written into the script it was up to Jones to gradually portray the character as becoming more and more comfortable with his leadership responsibilities and he does it masterfully.

To paraphrase one of my favorite YouTube channels, “No show is without sin” and that definitely holds true for Star Trek: Discovery but they’ve done some really good work, too. If the Star Trek franchise is a forest then Discovery is a new, healthy sapling that has just been planted. It has healthy, fertile soil in the form of solid writers and a terrific cast that want to work together to make a terrific show that follows in footsteps of those that came before. It is being fertilized with plenty of money to fulfill the things the cast and writers come up with. The hard stop to the first season’s plot line also means it won’t be forced to grow into any particular direction that might make it weaker. Star Trek: Discovery has room to grow into the best version of itself and I, for one, can’t way to see what comes next.

 

 

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is almost entirely filler

And that’s not a bad thing

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a simple, short show with an extremely straight-forward plot and charming characters. The show is only a single season of only 10 episodes. It’s cute, calm, and incredibly pleasant to watch in this day of high-tension serialized shows. It’s almost refreshing to watch a show where everything pretty much goes the way you expect, especially when there’s no life or death drama to contend with. The simple plot, however, means the majority of the airtime is filler.

There has been this sentiment around the internet, recently – or at least in my circles of the internet – that “Filler Episodes” of television are among the worst evils to plague humanity. People complain about it in the Arrowverse shows on the CW, they complain about it in The Walking Dead, I’ve even seen some people complain about filler moments in Game of Thrones. First, let’s answer the question, “What even is filler?”

The simple definition is a segment of a story that doesn’t contribute to the overall story aka advance the plot. The most common place you’ll see this is in a TV series where somewhere between one and a handful of episodes will not particularly advance the overall plot of the story. It is rarer but it can show up in video games or movies, too. One example of it happening in a movie is the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Gryffindor boys sit on their beds eating sweets that cause them to make animal noises. The best example in a video game off the top of my head comes from Persona 5. After the heroes complete the first dungeon there is a 30-minute series of cutscenes during that shows the kids celebrating their victory by eating themselves sick at a fancy hotel buffet but otherwise does very little to advance the plot. So that’s what filler is and you know a lot of people are complaining about it but is it inevitably bad? Absolutely not.

Think of it like donuts, for example. Some donuts have no filling, and those are fine. You can probably eat several simple glazed or powdered cake donuts in a sitting. Some donuts have a jelly filling and you bite into those and wonder, “Why would you ruin this perfectly fine donut with overly sweet fruit preserves?” But still other donuts have the Bavarian cream filling. And those donuts can be the best donuts you’ve ever eaten but they’re very rich. So if you got a dozen donuts you’d probably want to avoid the jelly-filled donuts, to take only a few of the ones with the Bavarian cream, and then you’d stock up primarily on the regular ones.

There is such a thing as good filler and bad filler. But since you’re not doing anything to the story you pretty much have to do something to the characters. Good filler is a great opportunity to make the characters in your story seem more real and maybe even expand the universe of your story by giving them simple moments free of life-or-death tension for a bit to just be. But in the being the audience should learn something new about them. That’s why the example of filler from Harry Potter is an example of bad filler. It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters – we learn nothing new about the boys from this scene, and candy that causes the person eating it to make an animal noise doesn’t even contribute much to our understanding of the universe. The Persona 5 example, on the other hand, is good filler. In a calm moment, you can see the characters introduced to that point interact with and tease each other. You learn more about their motivations, their relationships, and how they think. It would have been easier for the writers, developers, and designers to just show the kids pigging out for a few seconds and then move on but doing it that way actually benefited the story by helping the audience understand the characters who would be making important plot decisions later.

Let’s talk about a TV series. How about Star Trek? Which episode is the most iconic of all the episodes in the original series? If you said “The Trouble with Tribbles” you win a cookie. From a website. Congrats. That episode is pure filler. The stakes are low, it’s silly to a nearly unreasonable degree, and it absolutely makes every single top 10 ranking out there – usually in the top 5. It’s a great episode. But the other thing about filler is knowing when and how to use it. If every episode were like that, Star Trek would have been a very different show. So the two keys to good filler, as you may have guessed from the donut analogy, is quantity and type.

The modern television experience, however, is built around two ideas. Binge watching for internet-focused series and viewer-retainment for the more traditional offerings. In both cases, the serialized format (which I explained in more detail in my post about The Orvillemakes the most sense. Bingers will prefer a serialized style that naturally leads them from episode to episode. Weekly shows benefit from curious viewers who will be far more likely to come back next week for a continuing plot of a mediocre or even poorly written show if the story still has loose ends. There is also the fact that many series are shortening their seasons from the once traditional 23-26 episodes into something more like 10-15. This all means that adding filler into a season will almost certainly force writers to trim the main story.

Also, without the narrative room for filler that existed previously the filler that does get produced is now poorly squeezed in and often unjustified. For example, an episode like “The Trouble with Tribbles” would make no sense in Star Trek: Discovery right now because the writers have used the serialized format to ratchet the tension up to a permanent 11. There’s no time to take a break and be silly because people are dying for every moment the USS Discovery isn’t out shooting down bad guys. Something similar has happened in The Walking Dead. Couple this with the fact that viewers are also now trained to be upset when their narrative curiosity goes unrewarded in the next episode and the complaints out there can seem justified. Especially if that filler is more like the Harry Potter example than Star Trek or Persona 5.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie, however, uses its filler to expand and reveal its terrific cast of characters in a way that makes watching the show enjoyable even without overly impressive visuals or a particularly dramatic story.  It allows the audience to relax and enjoy learning more about the characters’ motivations and watch their relationships grow in a show-don’t-tell way that can usually only be seen in filler episodes. The dedication to focusing on characters instead of plot tension makes the show an almost meditative experience. It’s very easy to just veg out and feel like you’re hanging out with some friends. You probably won’t want to watch this kind of show constantly any more than every episode of Star Trek should have been “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But in a world filled with regular donuts interspersed with a few of the gross jelly-filled variety, it can be good to have some rich bavarian cream donuts to break things up, from time to time.