Friday, April 22, 2011

When Things Don't Make Sense: Part I

As someone who creates entertainment, well, as someone who wants to create entertainment anyway. I want to do better. So when I'm reading, watching, listening to something. I'm always trying to take a mental note of how can I make myself better as a writer, artist, whatever.

I've also been watching some old sci fi TV shows. I watched the entire first season of Stargate SG1, the first few episodes of Farscape, even some old episodes of The Incredible Hulk. What did I learn?

Well, much like medical researchers that can learn a lot more about how the body works from studying a victim of a genetic disorder than from studying a thousand healthy people. I think I can learn a lot more from a bad hour of TV than I could from a dozen brilliant works of genius.

Stargate - the early episodes of this show were a real mess. I know it's early broadcast history was at least a bit unusual, but that show never should have made it past it's pilot episode. It did, and the latter half of the first season did improve, so much that I even enjoyed a few of the late season 1 installments. I am aware that this show has a huge fanbase, I haven't seen beyond the first season, so forgive me if I'm a bit critical.

What bugged me most? Really, and this might sound nitpicky, but it's probably because I was getting so bored watching the episodes that I let my mind wander.

Why does everyone speak English?

The movie the show was based on made a point that the linguist was there because he was an expert in ancient languages, the people of the world they visited spoke only a derivative of ancient Egyptian.

Switch to the pilot episode, the folks from that world still don't speak English, but everyone else they met in Season 1 did. People taken from other periods in Earth's history, Mongol, Greek, Roman, whatever it was, they spoke English. I'm willing to swallow a whopper or two for the sake of the story. I don't want to spend every episode watching while the characters spend 15 minutes trying to figure out that the inhabitants of the world they are visiting are saying 'hello'. It would get old, fast.

But give me something, especially if in some episodes, the lack of a common language is the cause of the problem. No one notices, questions this, or even comments on it. It's just assumed everyone will speak English. Although, at some point, maybe two thirds the way through season one, when a character on an alien world was posing in a threatening manner, Colonel O'Neal did ask for Daniel to find some term in any language the natives would understand... at which point the menancing character revealed that he could speak perfect English.

Again, one episode, the Aliens sit and listen for 15 minutes saying nothing, then they stand up and announce they've been learning English and can now speak it. They're super advanced. Of course, the team encounters a cave monster, an alien cave monster, trapped in a mountiain for centuries - it speaks English. Geez. Super advanced aliens, give them 15 minutes, stupid alien monster, it already knows.

Look at Farscape, a show whose early episodes shine when compared the first season of Stargate, (how ironic that Stargate's move to the Sci Fi channel led to the cancellation of Farscape) every inhabitant of any of the worlds encountered in the show are colonized by microbes in the brain stem that serve as universal translators. Again, whatever. I accept it and move on. It took five seconds of screen time in the first episode and doesn't have to ever be mentioned again. Problem solved.

What lesson did I learn? Well, if you don't know what the hell you're talking about, but you know it's a problem, make something up. Give me anything and if the story is good enough I'll buy it. Five seconds of screen time (or a line on the page) and we can all move on to enjoy the rest of the story.

If you can't do that, at least try to be consistent, maybe I won't notice.

Stargate and the Incredible Hulk - I only watched the classic two part episode of the Hulk, Prometheus. In that episode the Hulk enounters a meteorite that keeps him from turning entirely human when he calms down, he gets captured by the military and proceeds to smash everything. It wasn't until I saw this episode that I realized what had been bugging me about Stargate so much.

The SG1 team is military. But unlike any military I've ever seen. These guys are just about stupid. I've never served in the armed forces, but I'm pretty sure they don't work that way. My wife may not have originated this, but I heard it from her so I'll give her credit. She said, "If the story can only work if every character is an idiot, then it's probably not a very good story."

Amen. The Hulk gets away with it because it's a show that's nearly thirty years old. No one seemed to worry too much about how realistic anything was at the time. The only thing that really bothered me about the episode was that they dropped a giant half bowl onto the Hulk to keep him from getting away... then they lifted it by helicopter and it suddenly had this giant metal floor underneath it. Where did that come from?

The lesson learned? If I don't know how something works, be it military decision making or basket weaving. Don't BS your way through it, especially if it's integral to the plot.

These are only two points, and the lessons learned contradict each other, but that's okay. I will only apply these lessons intermittently - and never at the same time. I was planning on posting a third point, but it's so explosive, so game changing, that I don't think I can do it in this post. It would be like the Ghostbusters crossing the streams. The universe could explode.

You'll have to tune in next time to learn what the biggest lesson of all is.


Nancy said...

Ah, the blog cliffhanger, nice one.

Rogue Mutt said...

Come on, comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. all depend on fuzzy science.

Rusty Webb said...

Nancy - thanks, I'm sure the internet will hold it's breath in anticipation of the conclusion.

Rogue - fuzzy science doesn't bother me, much. It's fuzzy logic that bugs me.

Andrew Leon said...

That fuzz is just the mold growing on the brain.

I mostly enjoyed Stargate, but it was about the character interactions more than anything else. However, the movie was beyond horrible.

Anonymous said...

I recently re-read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and they placed something (was it a slimy goldfish???) in their ears so that everyone could understand everyone. Talk about fuzzy science. That book had it all. But a great read just the same.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Agree with Andrew - I'm stunned the movie even spawned a series. And it was all about the characters. I admit it - I'm one of those die hard Stargate fans.
However, don't get me started on Stargate: Universe! I just pretend it never happened.

Michael Offutt said...

I love watching television and there are plenty of things you can glean from them to improve writing in my opinion. Your post just enforces that.

Trisha said...

I think TV shows like this SHOULD have people not speaking English. And aliens all having American accents? THAT's just weird :D

A Beer for the Shower said...

There are no Mexicans in Star Trek. What's up with that? A pretty good racist joke I once heard said, "There aren't any Mexicans in Star Trek because they don't work in the future either."

I laughed. And I'm part Mexican, so I can say that.