Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Doctor Who and The Case of the Right Way Retcon

Hey there, Meat-Heads!

So everyone's favorite wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, British, sci-fi import has started its 8th season in its modern incarnation, and I thought "hey, what a perfect time to talk about retconning!"

For those not in the know of nerdy writers terms, "retcon" is short for "retroactive continuity," which is when new, previously unknown details, events, or actions are added to events that have already happened in a character's life/story after the fact, in order to flesh out new story possibilities, or, in some cases, rewrite motivation and character history completely.

The casual viewer/reader/whathaveyou experiences retconning all the time, but probably just didn't know there was a term for it.  For instance, in Sam Raimi's Spider-man series, it is established in the first film that a robber kills Peter Parker's Uncle Ben due to Peter's failure to act and apprehend the robber when he had the chance.  Plain, simple, black and white.  However, in Spider-Man 3 (ugh), we find out that said robber didn't actually kill Uncle Ben, it was actually his partner, the man who would become Sandman, who fired the shots and got away!

(That's right, Bob, it IS quite the twist.)

Now, this may SEEM like just a revelation of new information that was pre-planned, but the fact is, the involvement of Sandman was just shoe-horned in for the third movie, in order to create a lame connection between him and Spider-Man. Retcons are usually used as ways to open up new story lines when the status quo is starting to get stale, and other times it's used to completely re-write entire sections of story history to justify a change in direction for the series.  This brings me to my next point:


Making large-scale changes to continuity and story can often feel lazy and hacky, as well as insulting to fans of your series or characters, especially when the changes make years of beloved history irrelevant, or are contradictory to the core of the characters your audience has come to love.

For instance, Marvel comics is constantly making large-scale retroactive continuity changes to their flagship character, Spider-Man, and really who can blame them? When you're writing a character for 50 years who doesn't really age, you're bound to hit some walls and need to take a new, radical tack every now and then...

The most recent and widely derided of these changes came when, feeling there were no more stories to tell with Peter Parker being happily married and in his mid-30's, a story was written where Peter must save his Aunt May's life by making a literal deal with the devil, which ends up wiping the previous 30 years of continuity and stories from existence, re-sets him as a young bachelor, and even brings back to life characters who had since died.

As you can imagine, with a character whose history is so beloved to fans around the world, this change wasn't welcomed with open arms.  So that poses the question: How do you tell your audience "EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW IS WRONG!" and implement mass changes without it feeling like a cop out?

The answer is to find a way to change everything, without changing anything.  And how does one do that?  Or should I say...WHO?

"You're going to need a big blue box.  And possibly a bow tie."
Since Doctor Who's revival in 2005, one of the main plot elements is that The Doctor was involved in something called The Time War, in which he was forced to make a horrible decision to eradicate his own planet, destroying his entire race in order to end the fighting.  As you can imagine, this decision has weighed heavily on the character for the last 7 seasons, and is a constant reminder of the lengths to which he'll go. It is a burden and his greatest failure, and added a great, much needed edge to a character bering re-introduced to a 21st century generation of viewers. As you can imagine, however, this idea eventually reached a point where it had run its course, and needed to be dealt with head on instead of being limited to subtext, and they decided to do just that last November when Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary. The writers in charge decided to change one of his core character elements, and free him from the pain he felt over his horrible decision, but how? You'd have to some how allow him to go back and prevent the destruction of his home planet, but that would make all the preceding episodes and stories irrelevant because of the way time travel uh..."works," right?

Well, the 50th anniversary special showed us the time right before The Doctor decided to blow up his planet, as well as the thought that went in to that decision, but it also injected 2 other elements into the story: a sort of ripple in time that allowed The Doctor about to blow up his race to see the consequences of his actions by interacting with 2 other versions of himself from the future.  
They're all the same character. Just...hang with me here.
Together, the 3 of them figured out a way to save the planet and end the war by effectively making the planet disappear (short version), re-writing The Doctor's greatest failure into arguably his greatest triumph, but again, doesn't that make everything that'd happened on the show irrelevant now?

No.  The writers worked in a detail that because The Doctor was interacting with himself on his own timeline, in this sort of time-ripple, once the ripple was ironed out, his past incarnations would have no memory of anything that happened in it.  SO, to someone watching the first 7 seasons, everything still works because that character DOES BELIEVE he has blown up his own planet, but from the 50th anniversary special on, he knows he saved them all, and can grow as a character in that way, opening up the door to a whole new line of stories and ways to approach the character.

They changed everything, without changing anything.  Brilliant.

Fantastic, even.

I hope you enjoyed that nerdy breakdown of the do's don'ts of retconning. As long as you don't do what Donny Don't does, you'll be fine.

Until Next Time,

Eat Dead Meat!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, And The Case of the Mad-Libbed Plot

Hey there, Meat Heads!

 I'll spare you the apologies in my lengthy blog absence, and let you continue to assume I've been traveling the world like Kwai Chang Caine.  You all saw Guardians of the Galaxy, right?  Of course you did!  Marvel's newest blockbuster film was a great time, and super fun, but there was something about it that seemed unfortunately familiar.

Now let me preface this by saying I thought it was great, and enjoyed it quite a bit, BUT I'm going to throw down the Infinity Gauntlet because I had a major problem with it.

"I shall never throw down the Infinity Gauntlet! It is all powerful!"
Yeah, yeah, Thanos, that's not what I mean, but I'm glad you're here, I'll get to you in a bit.

Anyway, do me a favor: I'm going to describe a movie plot, and if you could please tell me which movie I'm describing, that would be great.

"An angry, larger than life villain seeks to teach a devastating lesson to those who wronged him by the use of a super-powered weapon, and only a group of mismatched, quirky heroes can stop him by working together in a race against time to prevent mass-destruction!"

Did you answer Guardians of the Galaxy?  Well then you'd be correct! You'd ALSO be correct if you had mentioned any number of other modern, big budget action films, including, but not limited to, The Avengers, Thor 2, Iron Man 3, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, any of the Transformers movies.  Like honestly, how many times can we watch a city get blowed up, or crashed into by a giant space ship in the third act? It's starting to become the new "everybody's got a gun." Seriously, it has almost zero weight to it anymore. I actually fell asleep during the last act of Transformers 3, which is just a city being blown up, woke up 20 minutes later and felt like I had missed nothing of importance.

Fact is, for as much fun as the characters were in Guardians, the plot was about as cookie cutter as it comes, and calling the villains paper thin would be an insult to thin paper.  This continues a trend that permeates practically every big budget action film in recent memory, and really hinders these films from becoming the classics some of them deserve to be.  Guardians could be a classic of sci-fi comedy, but it lacks a great plot, a memorable villain, and interesting action, stopping it from being truly great.

    Ok, ok, I'm glad you mentioned...yourself...because you, and that shiny glove thing you're wearing are adding to the problem, Thanos.  The thrust of "Marvel Phase 2" seems to have two main issues to deal with: The re-emergence of Hydra, and the introduction of the all-powerful Infinity Stones.  The problem is, they seem to be playing out these parts of the story with the SAME plot in EVERY movie they've made.  Seriously, think about every Marvel Phase 2 movie.  Fits the above plot breakdown to a T doesn't it?  
"Wait...then why do you pick on Thanos and the Guardian pukes, and not Stark and the puny mortal with the flying disc?"
Good question Thanos, so as Nick Fury once said, "well allow me to retort."  Guardians of the Galaxy suffers MAJORLY from "Over-important MacGuffin Syndrome."  Before you ask, Thanos, the term "MacGuffin" was a word coined (or at least popularized) by Alfred Hitchcock, referring to the thing or item in the story that everyone is trying to get.  Macguffins are incredibly common, are generally the driving force of the action, and have supported such great films as The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Xanadu.  It's the thing that gets things moving, the thing that raises the stakes, and the thing that shows you what action your characters will take in order to obtain it.  So what's the problem?

Well, the problem occurs when your Macguffin becomes the entire plot.  For some reason, modern blockbusters are written with the idea that as long as there's a thing to be gotten by someone evil, and you can show that it potentially will blow a lot of stuff up, the rest writes itself, and this causes these stories to be less engaging plots, and more paint-by-numbers stories with lots of snarky dialogue between its heroes.
"You got an issue with that?"
Well, I'm glad you're here as well, Tony, because I want to talk about why it's ok to have stories structured this way SOMETIMES.  I still think Marvel's best movie so far has been The Avenger. I know what you're thinking, you're thinking "but Clay, The Avengers is the QUINTESSENTIAL 'Macguffin-chase-city destruction' movie you just told me you were tired of," to which I would say yes, BUT, in that case, and in some other cases, it works.

The Avengers works for two reasons: 1. the characters, and their interactions, are the draw of the film. You have 6 or 7 charismatic characters meeting for the first time, and you only have 2 hours to work with, so you need to devote a lot of time to their interacting and getting to know each other. And 2. because even though the plot is as thick as "Loki is going to blow up the world," we already know who Loki is, thanks to Thor, and we know what kind of a character he is, so he's got some weight to him.  This is where Guardians falls short: we get the first half of the puzzle, which is the engaging, charismatic heroes we love to watch interacting, but we know next to nothing about the villain, or where he's from, why he's mad, and hardly even anything about who the hell it is he's mad at!  At least in Avengers, they're attacking Earth, so we have at least a little attachment to the target.  In Guardians we have...I don't know, John C Reilly I guess?

"For your...Earth"
That being said, I don't think that set up is necessary to tell that story at all.  Look at Star Wars. Same set up (more or less) as Guardians, with a bunch of snarky snarkersons putting aside their differences to save the universe, but what's the Macguffin there? It's actually R2-D2.  R2 has the plans that the empire and the rebels both want, and is the driving force of the action in the film. The thing is, it doesn't just STOP with that!  Star Wars had great, fleshed out characters, and built an incredibly rich world complete with history and even mythology/religion in ONE movie without half-assing the conflict in order to do it.  Think of the MacGuffin as a dinner plate.  You want it to have some food on it, otherwise all you end up eating is some tasty porcelain. 

I personally think the culprit behind this trend of storytelling is Star Trek (2009).  They had almost literally the exact same plot as Guardians of the Galaxy, with an equally weak, identically motivated villain, and they knocked it out of the park, because when the stuff with the main characters is that good,  you can overlook the other stuff sometimes.  Avengers is the same way, and so is Guardians, but my point is, Marvel is 10 movies deep into their Cinematic Universe, and they've told the exact same story more or less in every movie. If Guardians of the Galaxy had been their first or second, rather than their tenth, I may have been able to overlook it more, but knowing that they have so many great storytellers working for them in all their different divisions, it surprises/bums me out that they keep going back to the same well.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. I'm in the shower. The money shower."

Yeah, I know, Thanos, what do I know - after billions of dollars, if it ain't broke, don't fix it I guess?

Feel differently?  Feel the same?  Leave a comment, I'd love to discuss further with you!

And until next time,