FICTIONSIDE 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The Rules

To mark Jokerside’s third and a half birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the central tenets that Jokerside loves to stick by / completely ignore.

Here are nine of Jokerside’s rules of engaging with pop culture (full explanations below):

  1. Anything deserves credit
  2. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole
  3. Change is a luxury
  4. Never count on renewal because, bluntly, Networks aren’t often wrong
  5. Works of fiction can’t have plot holes
  6. A creator cannot rely on an audience to fill in plot holes
  7. Remakes, sequels and prequel cannot diminish the original
  8. Enemies must be used sparingly
  9. Narrative knows no bounds, everything has its medium
  10. Canon is there to help fans, not deny them

 

Let’s jump in…

  1. Everything deserves credit

If it took people time and effort…

Hellraiser Pinhead and the Lament ConfigurationAnything that makes it to the small or big screen has taken time, effort and thought. No matter how tempting it is, no matter how flawed the end product, no matter how much you disagree with it, there’s more chance of Batman V Superman crashing at the box office than a group of people dedicating months to producing something that deliberately failed against their goals. Yes, even rush jobs like Hellraiser Revelations, which a Pandemonium’s worth of evidence might suggest was a cynical attempt to retain franchise rights, deserves some credit because aside from any studio or legal issues people persevered to make it happen. Clive Barker has every right to dismiss it, Doug Bradley too, and many others. But anyone who’s handed the keys to the franchise, even with a sharp production schedule and light budget is unlikely to resist opening that puzzle box.

From top to bottom, there are big credits that reflect every collaboration and rewards them. So, it’s unfair, bordering cruel, to disparage that work. And after all, everything is an acquired taste…

Jokerside seldom slips at the negative, even considering half the Hellraiser franchise on an equal plane, but it’s tricky. Take a trip to Victor Frankenstein last year. That was Jokerside’s first, long-awaited trip to see a Frankenstein adaptation on the big screen (you know, we love Frankenstein) and while the end result was a disappointment it just shows how behind the scenes nonsense can get in the way of incredible talent working in front of and behind the camera. That kind of mess can be impossible to decipher, it might be aspersion and it’s doubtful the behind the scenes tales will ever spill out. But really, what needed to be said about a film that crashed at the box office, was poorly treated by British cinema chains and was surely not what the creators envisaged.

Always remember the glasshouses. No matter which demon, scientist, captain or bunch of pixels built them.

  1. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole

With a quill you are fearless…

It’s one thing to set a cliff-hanger at the end of film, book, comic, television series… And another to use it to pitch the direction an intent of a whole second stab. As arc shows have fast become the accepted norm, that’s all the trickier to navigate when a huge weight of concept shows appear year after year, propelled by hubris and concept and are… Promptly cut off after one season. Step forward Flash Forward. It’s the kind of thing that makes people utter inane comments like “Oh, if I’d have known it was only going to last one season, I’d never have bothered…” Really? It comes to something when a full US season of over 20 hours requires years of promised story yet to be written to warrant investment. After all, why bother with the second year when it could just as easily be cut off before the third…

For all the success (and contemporary criticism) The X-Files found by asking constant questions, giving few answers and hedging bets, there was an early warning shot when the ambitious five year plan of Dark Skies was cut short.

Television is both serial and finite, it’s Schrödinger’s Idiot Tube and you don’t get to both turn on your cathode ray and turn it off.

The Leftovers - A JokersliceA flip-side comes with renewals that are taken for granted or when there’s an occasional guarantee of multiple seasons. Lost was a prime example of the latter, with later truncated runs balanced against a fixed six season commission. Wonderful, but could it have been to the detriment of the show’s story? Recently, one of the sublime break-outs of the past two years, The Leftovers, had the mixed blessing of a confirmed but final third year. In that case it is very good news, and feels exactly right. But only as that show has bold, risky storytelling at its heart. And that’s rare.

Hannibal was another bold show that knew full well it was lucky to run three years on prime time network. Bryan Fuller would have had no issue keeping its intoxicating story going longer even though [spoilers] he ended the third year with a superb Reichenbach moment. Though we all lament for Fuller’s take on The Silence of the Lambs (truthfully, already echoed in earlier seasons), that was both a satisfying conclusion and a huge hole to write himself out of. A hole it might be said that Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t bothered to write himself out of over a hundred years ago. Back to the X-Files, the recent limited run poked fun at the outrageous stretching enigma that typified its original nine year run, but ended with a satisfying cliff-hanger that will likely, but possibly never, be resolved.

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesWe’re well past the days when episodes reset every week with a laugh on the Bridge of the Enterprise. Writers should always aim for the boldest and most satisfying conclusion for a story, no matter the difficulty it causes their future selves. They should be confident that no matter how dire or finite the ending, a writer or writing team can pen themselves into a new story the next time round. After all, real life carries on regardless, and it takes writing itself out of ridiculous situations for granted every second. That is life. It doesn’t stop.

So writing to a limit or writing to infinity is a trap to be avoided at all costs. And come the end of a series, no matter how demarcated, no matter how Blake’s 7 it all seems, a writer must be ready to continue that story. That’s what Charles Dickens was doing week to week far before a TV writer hedged their bets.

  1. Change is a luxury

Don’t take it for granted or think it’s your time vortex sent right…

Altering everything is less a good way to make your mark, more often a step backwards. For years television, film before it, and literature before that, were built on the familiar. Risks had heavy costs attached. As mentioned above, creators could once take an anthology approach to serialised fiction where audiences appreciated a reset switch at the end of every hour. Those days have disappeared. And arc storytelling brings challenge as much as reward. But change for change’s sake is a handbrake manoeuvre that must be avoided.

Tenth Doctor WhovemberThere’s a crunch time coming for Doctor Who, a show that is the definition of rebellious fiction trapped within the constraints of a medium that has long dragged its aerial when it comes to allowing content to change. The fluidity inherent to Who, which can mean the wholesale change of all cast and sets from one week to the next, represents an absolute challenge and the absolute a gift to a creative team. It’s all down to the murky, miracles and oddity that afflicted a science fiction show which mutated under a branch of the UK’s civil service throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Having gloriously returned in 2005, it was galling to hear rumours that the upper echelons of the BBC considered shelving the show after the success of the David Tenant years just five years in. A fast-moving medium, it has a terrible memory. While that foolishness was junked, we instead found a show retooled to the point that Series Five could be marketed as Series One in the United States. Steven Moffat came on board, there was a new Doctor, companion, theme arrangement, title sequence, logo, filming style… After the budget efficient swagger of Series Four, Series Five was a washed out throwback to the slight unsteadiness of Series One. Come the production changes of Series 11, it can only be hoped that Peter Capaldi takes up the chance to stay an additional year and we avoid the sight of the one show that should snuggle up to change changing wholesale once again.

Who’s just one of many examples that evoke clichés of babies and bath water. Typically obtuse, no show better proves what an attractive trap such change can be.

  1. Never count on renewal because, bluntly, Networks aren’t often wrong

Despite the associated flaws, television is by its definition fast and transient…

Yes, controversial. Jokerside’s had a lot of fun (read misery), looking at horror drama commissioning on the glorious NBC network. Following failed single season or pilot uprisings of gothic icons Dracula and Frankenstein and, well, Munster, in recent years you can always count on something popping up to try again like a good undead. Right now there’s the proposed Brides of Dracula. As soon as it was announced, chances of renewal looked bleak.

But the thing is, no matter how many of our favourite shows or guilty pleasures are cut down in what some will always protest are their prime, when you weigh up the ratings, audience connectivity and content those decisions are seldom wrong. Yes, it’s particularly torrid when something special is cut off just as it’s “getting there” with some episodes left untelevised while NCIS Mars has a blank renewal cheque book – but these things do tend to balance out.

ST: TNG's Commander Data smoking a USS VoyagerA real indication that The X-Files had staying power wasn’t just early ‘90s zeitgeist or being one of the first to wrap its viewers up in perplexity, but that the pilot episode was almost beat for beat perfect as the series that followed. It was uncanny back then, and not something oddly, its limited return managed to beat. On the other side, Firefly had an awkward start with swapped and second pilots, before it became the consummate, dark, funny, incredible show it was in the final few episodes. True, that deserved more time. Compare it to that giant of television, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which took a good two whole years to take off. In fact, that’s startlingly true of almost all Star Trek series. We can only hope that isn’t a tradition Brian Fuller aims to keep going.

For every real miscarriage of justice, there are hundreds of shows that were simply misconceived, too slow, or too hesitant. Jokerside’s level enough to include the real promise of last year’s Constantine in that. Falling in a year when DC cohort The Flash astounded and somehow Gotham defied all narrative balance to become compelling and vivid event genre television, it was unlucky. But then john Constantine is unlucky.

This next bit’s particularly harsh. Hopefully, the failure of Constantine and Hannibal to repeat the channel swapping of dropped Buffy, Ripper Street or Red Dwarf (none of those the clean cut moves they first appeared), shows that a horrid world of little IP loyalty control is far away. Yes, it hurts, but shows must disappear for others to be born. TV moves quick.

  1. Works of fiction can’t have plot holes

They’re seldom worth the attention…

Probably the most quoted mantra on Jokerside, so worth repeating definitively. The idea of pointing out plot holes in something that is made up is clearly an utter waste of time. True, there can be narrative jumps that contradict an internal logic, but those aren’t necessarily plot holes. And if they are, and they do happen sometimes, does it really affect the overall tone of the piece or the veracity of the plot. Lest the withered pedant in all of us finally chest-bursts.

There are many processes and influences that affect a story on its journey from draft script to a finished work. There are jumps and leaps, edits and changes, all of which confirm or challenge the concept. Sometimes, it’s for the sake of one sequence in the edit, sometimes it’s for the great of good. Film is often let down by a failure to develop immaculate scripts, particularly in the British film industry, but even then it’s seldom that the disbelief in a fictional world can be destroyed by the odd blip in a script.

Craig Bondathon - James BondRemember that pirate in Doctor Who Series Six? In the galley of The Black Spot, that one who just disappeared? That was far more believably an edit issue considering the episode was rushed forward a half series than a complete oversight of writing and script supervision. And irritating as it is, it really doesn’t affect a plot that was barely breaking out of And Then There were None. Like the intricacies of passive and active roles in an off-side decision, it all depends what happens later. But as the third act didn’t see the errant pirate sweeping in to save the day, see off the alien and nick the TARDIS, it’s safe to assume the plot wasn’t affected one iota. It’s more a plot irritant.

A terrible example of plot, shall we say, frays, was last year’s SPECTRE. A phenomenally disappointing film that collapsed in its third act. Bond’s instinct when he reaches MI6 is inexplicable, as is his happy acceptance that he should call his nemesis Blofeld after spending much of his life thinking of him under a different name. Then there was the pre-title sequence where whole audiences starred in disbelief as Bond leapt into a helicopter and took out the pilot. All those things, all of them, could can have been solved by a snip in the edit, just as they were likely caused by it. Bond’s escape from brain shrivelling, memory crushing torture however? Well, that’s a real script oversight.

  1. A creator cannot rely on an audience to fill in plot holes

Don’t martyr yourself for a film that doesn’t deserve it…

No matter how much you like the property, no matter how much you want to give credit to a film as per point 1… There had to be a flipside to being kind to plot holes. As much as any fiction cannot be too harshly judged for realistic detail, seeing it as we are from a viewpoint controlled by someone else, it can’t rely on the audience to fill in all the gaps.

Star Trek Star Trek into Darkness RebootJokerside’s recent glimpse at the 2009 Star Trek film proved a valuable point. In a lean and hockey science fiction plot, although no more hokey than the slingshot that propelled the original series crew to Earth in 1986, huge swathes of story were eliminated that rob the film of increasing sense under repeated scrutiny. It was off-putting to find backstory shoved into a wealth of multimedia around the film, less so to discover a fair amount of cut or deleted scenes. But that film ran a very real risk of asking the audience to suspend one disbelief too many when it chose running time over coherence.

Fan theories can be fun, for instance the thought that the torture mentioned above triggered a dream sequence in which the rest of the SPECTRE played out. That really would help explain that terrible third act. But of course, no creative team should undervalue their work by expecting an audience to come up with a fantastical loop hole.

Any work should stand on its own merits. Should be judged on its specific running, reading or playing time without the aid of enhanced back stories, prequel comics or commentary tracks. Filler is a bonus, not the be all and end all. Merchandise is distinct from storytelling. If you come out a film endlessly spooling out supposition to fill in scenes from a film then something has gone markedly wrong with the narrative.

  1. Remakes, sequels and prequel cannot diminish the original

It often feels like it, but it’s all in your head. Exercise that muscle of disbelief.

Tricky one this. Unfortunately an increasing trend in popular thought, and another that works both ways as audience have quickly become acclimatised to the new wave of arc series, trilogies and prequels. There’ll be other things to adapt to -just think back to the movie serials that flooded the 1940s. But then every generation likes to own these celluloid issues, and huge follies like the Star Wars prequels are not only ours, but huge. There are too many other examples to mention.

While George Lucas was compelled to base that Prequel trilogy around Darth Vader, and harmful additions like bottling the vaguely mysticalSThe Hobbit The Phantom Menace force into a biological possibility altered the emphasis on later scenes that were recorded 35 years, before those original films remain absolutely, utterly untarnished.

To steer to another specific Lucasfilm example, the exquisite 1980s Indiana Jones trilogy that has been burdened with the ill-fitting Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for eight years will soon be joined by a fifth instalment. Whisper it, but Kingdom isn’t a terrible film, it had an incredible up-hill struggle to compete with a close and linked original set. While fans may have clamoured and feared a further film that could redeem or compound that fourth part, it’s unlikely it will pay any attention to it whatsoever.

The flipside is that, especially in sequential storytelling, a payoff can detrimentally affect a previous episode. In the recent series of Doctor Who, one of the finest for some time, the lightly teased puzzle of the hybrid wasn’t answered. That robbed a lot of the tension from that growing mystery, but that tension would have always transformed as the series completed its run to boxset. The original stories were less rooted in the arc mystery than Moffat’s previous series, so are all the better standing up in their own right.

Doctor Who and the Trial of Morbius!A recent example came with Jokerside’s tricky look at lesser Time Lord fiend Morbius. Entering the Doctor Who in classic mid-1970s serial The Brain of Morbius he was instantly enshrined as a myth in an atmospheric Frankensteinian romp. Big Finish later reanimated him only to discover he was rather bland in the flesh (see the dark mirror argument in Point 8). But the real horror came with Terrance Dicks’ BBC book Warmonger, where he showed the maniacal dictator in his full and original pomp. Like a time sensitive M. Bison. Claimed as great example of a prequel that somehow manages to diminish the original televisions serial, it’s best viewed as a giant joke.

The mighty Terrance Dicks was taking a well-deserved poke at the mid-1980s era of script editor Eric Saward (packing it with violence and misogyny while he turned the gentle Fifth Doctor into a general) as well as his old chum Robert Holmes, who as script editor himself had taken Dicks’ original Morbius script and ripped it into rather beautiful shreds (to the point it was credited to a bland pseudonym. Robin Bland).

  1. Enemies must be used sparingly

Enemies, monsters, antagonist, when you hit on a great one don’t trap them in a war of escalation

Another one off Jokerside’s largest bugbears and again, one worth examining on two levels.

Think of the plight of the Master, a simple twist of Moriarty that added to a reformatted Doctor Who which was almost a decade old. Oron Man The Winter SoldierAppearing in over a year’s worth of stories straight he would then be reduced to pathetic plots, side quests and sporadic appearances in the decades that followed. The power of a dark mirror is irresistible. It’s ensured Moriarty a running role in the BBC’s Sherlock and countless spin-off fiction despite that Napoleon of Crime only affecting two of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories directly. 1975’s Man with the Golden Gun showed that the allure of the evil duplicate is no golden egg at all. In fact, it’s more often smug, self-serving, dull and… Safe. The great film phenomenon of our age, Marvel was rightly called out by George R Martin last year for consistently pitting the world’s mightiest heroes against villains… with similar powers. Iron Man versus Iron Monger, Captain America versus the Winter Soldier, Hulk versus Abomination, Yellow Jacket versus Ant Man… Rust, serum, green and small.

Then there’s the ruination of villains as they crumple and dilute under expectation and exploitation. The 10 year recurrence of Doctor Who has placed incredible demands on monsters old and new alike. Steven Moffat hit golden stone with his Weeping Angels in 2007, but hasn’t been able to resist enhancing their powers with almost every return.
Return of the Ice Warriors and end of an eraIn contrast, beyond the Daleks who have been lucky in their continued domination and the Cybermen who’ve been just as let down as during the 1970s and 1980s, classic monsters have been cursed by remakes. The worst disrespect still falls to the brief return of the Ice Warriors. Undermined in a derivative base under siege tale, those noble and interesting knights of Mars were literally stripped naked. One of the most rugged species became CGI. Alongside their reptilian cousins the Silurians, the decision to remake their original entrances just couldn’t do them justice.

  1. Narrative knows no bounds, everything has its medium

Some media tackles things better than others. Is it little wonder that some adaptations underwhelm while others never make it?

RIP Iwata Mario & LuigiPlot may well carry across every medium, but script and various facets of every genre don’t. Some things simply have natural fits, and that goes beyond the much-discussed ‘unfilmable’ quality attached to various literature.

Playing to strengths, one great example is suspense. Comic strips happen to be matched only by film for their ability to engender and fulfil suspense. Every medium has its own quality and should be treated as such. Stories should be let loose to find their own way, whatever the risk, and never a snook of snobbery be cocked. Now when’s that next Dune RTS game coming out?

  1. Canon is there to help fans, not to deny them

Where would fandom be without the controversy?

Ah yes, canonicity. Really, where would fans be without it? It fuels millions of hours of debate, argument and passion. And that’s no exaggeration. It’s a concept that is strong. Can’t help but think that a fan taking the laissez-faire view that everything’s canonical is missing some fun. And sometimes engagement with that canon has to be overlapping specific conflicts within expanding universes.

Steven Moffat was gracious to open up the audio universe of Big Finish to Doctor Who in the minisode Night of the Doctor, but it remains a Eighth Doctor Jokertoonvague acknowledgement that the Eight Doctor had a career rather than a wholesale call up of swathes of past Doctor adventures into a conflicted timeline. And that’s a show that’s had over 50 years to get itself into a tangle on television alone. Take the three deaths of the Sixth Doctor (coming late this year to Jokerside), where two conflicting variations building to his abrupt regeneration at the start of Time of the Rani now vie in the annals of Big Finish and the BBC Past Doctor book range.

Star Wars Force Unleashed DeathstarThere are reasons why canon splinters and why things are subsequently unwritten (a lighter form of the prequel/sequel conundrum above). Jokerside took a long hard look at the Star Wars canon in the run up to The Force Awakens. Disney’s decision to savagely dispense with almost all the expanded universe seemed like a ruthless act of Empire. But it was the right thing to do, even though it cast the rather brilliant Force Unleashed era onto the funeral pyre. At least they now have the chance to rewrite that storyline and even the Star Wars Holiday Special should they wish. Where Doctor Who places the 2005 episode Dalek in relation to the source Jubilee in the Big Finish range, both written by Robert Shearman, is one for the pub. And so it should be.

Tune in next anniversary for another Fictionside. If you haven’t already, take a step back to look at Fictionside 101: Five Types of Fictional Reboot!

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