Friday, January 20, 2012

Terra Nova vs. Falling Skies: One Writer's Comparison

This was originally going to be a post about how Terra Nova could improve, but I've found an example: Falling Skies.

For those of the tl;dr crowd, the answer is simple - show, don't tell. (Or, alternately: add Noah Wyle.)

For those who want to know why, read on.

I loved the Terra Nova pilot. I could not wait for Episode 2. When it came out, I thought, "Okay, they're still hitting their stride, it'll get back to the same level of the pilot." This equates to Homer and his flying pig - "It's still good, it's still good!" Ah, how sad we are in these moments. I watched another 6 or 7 episodes, but after that, I gave up, and even my enthusiasm waned after episode 3.

I recently gave Terra Nova a chance to redeem itself by watching the two-episode season finale. I figured if they were going to do something big, it would be here, where they need a cliffhanger to keep people wondering until the next season comes out. Alas, again, I was wrong. So let's look at my disappointment, and see why Falling Skies managed to reclaim my wandering sci-fi attention.

Terra Nova has a couple of large problems. One is that they never introduce subordinate characters with sufficient depth to make us care about them, so they don't have anyone expendable to use to raise the stakes. Another is that it assumes we care about the environment. Well, sure, but this is a show about dinosaurs. Where are they? Third, it assumes we care about a future we haven't reached yet - 2149, in fact, a date that most of its viewership won't live to see. Set it in 2055 and I would care a whole lot more. And the final, and biggest problem, is that they just keep telling me what's going on without ever showing me. It gets real old, real fast.

Examples from the season finale: main character's son has girlfriend he has to leave in 2149. Boo hoo. We know it's bad there, because they've told us (see what I did there?) but that's all we know. Everyone wears respirators, and there's a strict two-child policy, so it's still better than Beijing. Anyway, he makes stupid plans to get her to Terra Nova because he promised he would. Never mind that he has a hot new girlfriend, he's honourable or something, so okay. She comes through, she dies. Oh no!

But wait! What do we know about her? Um... Her name is Kara. She gave him a necklace. And... that's it. Does she have any family? Anyone to miss her as she takes the supposedly-one-way ticket to the past? We don't know. How long had they been dating for? Was it serious? He's only 18. Were they engaged? How did they meet? What have they got in common? Given the son's lack of characterisation, i.e. he has no hobbies except moping, what could they possibly have in common (except moping)? In short: why should we care? Answer: we don't. There's another facet to this that I'll return to shortly, however.

Oh, the environment. How important are you? Well, pretty important, but this aspect suffers from a lack of clear goals on the part of the Terra Nova project. They say that Terra Nova exists in a different time stream, so nothing done in the past can affect the future, blah blah blah, but why are they there? Is it an evacuation? Are they trying to learn from the mistakes of the past and not ruin the ecosystem as carelessly as they did before? How long do they plan to stay here, and to what end? It's all very, "Well, of course it's obvious!" so nothing is ever clarified.

Cue the Big Evil Bad Guys wanting to come in and strip-mine the place to take everything back to 2149, something that was supposed to be impossible. They want to use explosives to destroy all the fauna and flora within a huge radius so they can get at deposits that would be buried hundreds of kilometres underground, if they even still existed in the future. Cool. Let's go.

But noooooooo, we can't let them do that! Why? "Well, of course it's obvious!" It's Bad. You Do Not Do That To The Environment. If You Disagree You Are A Bad Person. Come on. Give me something more to chew on than this. How does this relate to any of the characters I'm supposed to care about? Oh, right: it doesn't. Never mind. This also relates to the same point I'm going to make later, but I'm still getting there...

Why should we care about the future? These future people clearly ruined their world, not us. Are we supposed to feel guilty because they didn't know how to turn off the lights? As bad as the way we're treating the ecosystem is, there's nothing in my mind that says we're going to wind up in eco-domes in 187 years, and even if we do, even my children will be long gone by then. It's a selfish outlook, sure, and not one I actually ascribe to, but it's the part of my brain that rebels when a sci-fi TV show wants me to feel bad for something I didn't do. So they lose points for that as well as the final, biggest loser...

SHOW ME. Kara died? I didn't see it. They want to pyro-bomb the crap out of some landscape so they can mine it better? Don't defuse the first bomb they ever plant. You want me to believe things are really bad in 2149? What have I seen, apart from eco-domes and respirators and everyone wanting in on Terra Nova? Where is my proof, dammit? Why are you making this so hard?

And that's really what it comes down to. Too many things happen off-screen. Here is a brief list of things that happened in the season finale that we weren't allowed to see: the warp point was destroyed and a private army flooded through, taking out the meagre defences around Terra Nova; 26 civillians were killed in the fighting; Kara died; the main character was tortured; a reign of terror descended on the inhabitants of Terra Nova, captained by Commander Taylor's son Lucas; Lucas and Skye had a thing; she convinced him to spare the main character's son's life (how?? He calls her 'dear sister' - what?); the leader of the Sixers went into the Badlands and returned with something interesting (revealed at the end of the show, but it loses bonus points, because - ); the money-grubbing exec finds a substance from her trip to the Badlands and says, "Do you know how much this is worth in 2149?" to which the audience answered, "No! What is it?" and the answer was [SPOILER] lol wooden ship parts from the 18th century lol? [/SPOILER]. Add to this the fact that one subordinate character did die, but her death was pointless, and you have a pretty disappointing finale. On the scale of I Want to Cry It's So Bad to Freakishly Awesome, this falls closer to I Want Those Two Hours of My Life Back.

Now, Falling Skies. Oh man, the subtext. I adore it. I adore it so much it hurts. Just go watch it, and you'll see, but for the record, here are some of the things it gets right [WARNING - SPOILERIFFIC] - one of the main characters gets dragged away by another character's mind-controlled younger brother, who they were trying to save; a less-than-good physician mentally tortures the main character by suggesting that if his wife didn't love him so much, she would still be alive, then also tortures a captive alien, apparently just for the heck of it; a female character shoots two of her rapists and saves another main character from the same fate (mega bonus points: she survives and becomes a kickass soldier); a jerk of an ex-con puts down enemy-drawing flares in the middle of a civilian encampment to speed up negotiations; the main character ponders the significance of an alien race that has 6 legs creating bipedal mechanical robots when we ourselves originally imagined robots that would look like us (hence bipedal and not six-legged) and what this might mean in terms of what the aliens are trying to do to humans psychologically; children are murdered to make a point; religion is treated respectfully, without being an overriding theme; the show itself is funny.

I especially want to address the religion point, because I think Falling Skies does something special in this regard. Leaving out whether you're for or against religion, it is a big part of some people's lives. Mine not so much, and I usually get pretty angry when what looks to be sci-fi turns out to be moralising thinly disguised. But Falling Skies covers the topic elegantly, by having a very sweet girl whose faith remains unshaken. She prays for the missing, not to help them, but to make herself feel better, and she remains in an attitude of thankfulness, despite their poor circumstances. She doesn't go around preaching, but especially at the end of episode 4, it's easy to see that her optimism is catching - she raises the spirits of those around her, simply by reminding them that even being alive is something to be grateful for. Whether that's religious or not, I don't think it matters. What matters is that she's a positive influence, and I think that's nice, whatever angle it comes from.

There are many lines I found particularly memorable, but none of them work out of context, so let's just say that the writers are doing an excellent job. Also excellent is the direction, something that I believe may have been the cause of the fall of Terra Nova - the first two episodes (the pilot) were directed by Alex Graves, and the rest by other people. The first two episodes shine, and the rest not so much. Falling Skies also sees changing directors, but my hopes remain high, simply because of that consistency of dialogue. Where many of the actors and their lines in Terra Nova are flat - apart from Skye and Taylor, the only two characters who act in a consistent, believable manner - Falling Skies seems to have picked up a more mobile cast, at least in terms of facial expressions. You'll noticed I can't even remember the names of the main cast of Terra Nova. I only omitted the names of the main characters from my recount of Falling Skies because I imagine most people haven't watched it yet.

So, to sum up, let's compare the posters for these two shows, and some character shots of the same role, filled in each case. Because I like visual representations of why I'm right, is why. Enjoy!


 ... enigmatic. Or something.
Sweet! This show is sci-fi!
So... safari time? With the perfect family?
Post-apocalyptia? Awwwwww yeah!
Main heart-throb? Uh... pass. They have showers - why is his hair still so messy?
Dude wears camo, carries a gun and rides a motorcycle. I know who I'd count on more in a dangerous situation (i.e. dinosaurs!).

Okay, that's my hate vented. Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments (I'm not, by the way). :) 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Where Dead Space: Martyr (and most other prequel novels) fail

I have no particular bone to pick with Dead Space: Martyr. In fact, it scared me so much in the first 30 chapters that I had to put it down for a couple of months, which was a welcome feeling, given my love for the game. My problem with it is that it falls into the same trap as many other prequel novels, and therefore became more of a disappointment than a normal book, simply because I had been enjoying it so much.

Again, before I get started I know it's hard to write something in a universe that isn't entirely pinned down, perhaps where its own creators don't really know what's going on. I get that. I do that for a living. What I'm attempting to say is how this kind of disappointment can be avoided, and to do that, I'm going to spoil a whole bunch of things.

The overall concept of the book, I liked. The core idea is that Altman is not a prophet, and in fact is fighting against the Marker, but he's murdered by 'the government' and turned into a martyr to further the cause of Unitology. No real surprises there, given Unitology is based on a similar-sounding religion created by a similarly ill-fated prophet (though the government assassination is up for grabs in that case).

My problem with Dead Space: Martyr, and with most prequels in general, is this : just because you know what has to happen doesn't mean you can't put a twist on it. We all know Altman is seen as a saviour. It's interesting that he wasn't, and as I said, I liked that part of it, and it was inevitable that he had to die, but his death could have had meaning. No meaning that anyone else could ever have found - he was supposed to be assassinated, so people would follow his teachings without him getting in the way. But he could have died for something he believed in, rather than dying because the story dictated it. I shall give an example.

In the book, the way he dies is this : two of the other characters salvage data and recreate the necromorphic material that comes from feeding the Marker's projected signal into dead tissue. They make a monster, using one of the other dead characters. They throw Altman in an arena with it, with only a spoon to defend himself. Presumably, this does not go well.

Altman's last thoughts are of the evil that will be done in his name, and how awful it is to know ahead of time what's going to happen. Personally, I probably would have been thinking about something else, like the people I love (e.g. his dead girlfriend) but, hey, I'm just going to figure that's where our understandings of the character differ. However, the fact remains that Altman dies essentially because he has to, and for no other reason. He doesn't make a heroic last stand, or stare into the eyes of his killers as the monster bears down on him, or show any shred of moral fibre. He simply dies.

And this is where I take issue with a good many prequels. I've played Dead Space, 1 & 2, read the comic and watched Downfall. I know what's going to happen. I'm not surprised Altman dies. I was expecting it. But it could have been something more. In other cases, where I haven't known a book was a prequel, the deaths seem even more ridiculously far-fetched, because I don't understand the causality. There's a simple reason for that : causality is working backward.

Instead of saying, "Here is the story I want to tell, and here is the outcome I would like it to have," it seems most prequels begin with the endpoint, then work their way to the beginning. Not that this is necessarily a bad way to write - I myself almost always begin with my ending in mind, so I know which direction to face - but when it constrains the story to illogical depths, it becomes a problem.

I'm thinking here of A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. The ending of that book, for having not read A Fire Upon the Deep, is excruciatingly unfulfilling. A beloved character does the Oatesian manoeuvre, stepping out into a blizzard because, well, why not? Another character succumbs to a type of madness because... well, why not? And a third character... Let's just say you've probably guessed where I'm going with this by now.

There are similar cases of such, like Robert Jordan's New Spring, or my own eagerly anticipated stab to the heart, Mouse & Dragon, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Mouse & Dragon tries to set up the futures of the other characters in their universe by having the main character - my personal favourite - comment on things that will never be fulfilled. For example, at one point a young boy is affecting the dice in a strange way. The main character says, "You'll have to show me more about that, one day." Then, suddenly, the book is over.

I understand why they do this. It's to add dimension and depth to a pre-existing world, and to reference events that have already passed, in most people's minds, even though chronologically they're yet to happen. But show me one person who likes obvious foreshadowing, and not for its humorousness, and I'll show you a person who doesn't understand story.

Spiderman 3 : "They're my friends. I'd die for them." Good work signing your own death warrant.
Event Horizon : "Where we're going, you won't need eyes." This is not even foreshadowing. Stop it.
Every RPG ever : "I sure hope I don't turn evil someday." Well, great.

Foreshadowing can be done well. It's essentially like writing a good murder mystery. All of the clues have to be there from the beginning, but they should only make sense when the proper context comes into play. In this way, killing a character in a prequel novel makes as much sense as, "The butler did it!" There's no motivation, no emotion, and no closure. It just is, and that's not what stories are about. If stories were just facts, they would be textbooks, and we would hate them.

Prequels that do foreshadowing well, I hear you ask? Well, now, there's a doozy, but let me give it a shot. Dead Space: Downfall, the animated movie, actually does a very good job of setting up what takes place on the Ishimura moments before the beginning of the first game. Local Custom and Scout's Progress, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller and set in the same universe as Mouse & Dragon, are both prequel novels, but self-contained and thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that Mouse & Dragon is the sequel to Scout's Progress, making it a prequel between prequels, is part of its confusion, but equally confusing is that they managed to get it so right, then so wrong.

Less well-known, but no less brilliant, is the tie-in prequel Visser, by K. A. Applegate, in the Animorphs universe. And, in terms of games, Professor Layton and the Last Spectre seems (so far, to me, at least) to be fulfilling the role of prequel very adequately.

What did all of these works accomplish? It's very simple. They told a story, a moving story, a logical story, a self-contained story, that just happened to be related to something else. And really, that's what every good prequel should be.