Offshoots

In the last ten days I’ve seen two new movies spun off from existing fictional universes, but not part of the main story line.  Their success bodes well for the willingness of audiences to welcome independent stories in a common setting—offshoots from the main trunk, you might say.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts posterI found “Fantastic Beasts” unexpectedly enjoyable and rather touching—possibly because I came to it with low expectations.  It is, of course, set in the same world as Harry Potter, but focuses on different characters in a different time period (the 1920s).

The Potterverse, to my mind, is not all that compelling in itself.  The HP novels and movies are enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of the events and characters.  There are too many oddities in the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter stories to make that milieu a preferred destination, to my mind.  (Why does the entire wizard culture revolve around a prep school, and do wizards have no purpose other than to protect their own secrecy?).  So “Fantastic Beasts” didn’t exercise a strong appeal just because it was set in the Potterverse.

But I really liked the characters in this one.  For one thing, they were grown-ups, with adult concerns.  There’s nothing wrong with young adult stories, but after a while one yearns for adult companionship.

In particular, the likable Muggle Jacob Kowalski steals the show.  (The HP books are sadly lacking in sympathetic Muggle characters.)  And I was pleased that Queenie, who first appears to be a traditional dizzy blonde, turns out to be loving and sympathetic and competent.  Both the romances in the story were as pleasing as they were unexpected.

Rogue One

Rogue One posterThe newest Star Wars film is not only set in that same galaxy far, far away, but also tied in very closely with the plot of the original Episode IV, “A New Hope.”  Nonetheless, it’s characterized as a “standalone” Star Wars movie.  The characters are almost entirely new (though some familiar faces appear in cameos), and the plot is distinct from that of “A New Hope” right up to the point at which they tie together.

The movie is good, though I’m not quite sure of its long-term pulling power.  I found the character chemistry a bit more uneven than in the iconic original.  One doesn’t become quite as invested in these new characters, for a variety of reasons.  They have dramatic backstories, but for some reason those backstories didn’t seem to emerge on the screen quite as compellingly.  The plot zigs and zags extensively before it straightens out into the crucial track where it needs to connect with Episode IV – at which point it does become pretty gripping.  (Since the movie has only been out for a few days, I’m striving valiantly to avoid spoilers, which is why my observations are intentionally vague.)

The Reception

Both films seem to be doing well at the box office, and with viewers.  “Fantastic Beasts” has had a successful few weeks, and “Rogue One” had a boffo opening this weekend, as reported in the New York Times and Variety.  The Star Wars picture is getting highly favorable audience reviews—currently 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

TV Tropes refers to this kind of independent offshoot with the term “Metaplot”—multiple independent works coexisting in the created universe other than sequels or prequels, while there is still an overall story arc that affects the plots of those separate stories.  The phenomenon is common in written works, including those science fiction “future histories” with works separated by long distances in time or space.  It’s becoming more common in the movies too.  For example, Erich Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15) mentions the parallels in the Marvel Cineverse.

Conclusions

Dragonflight cover artIf we like the “look and feel” of a given universe, we may be glad to revisit that locale, even in the absence of familiar characters and storylines.  For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern has flourished through innumerable sequels, prequels, side stories, and odd departures of all sorts (Dolphins of Pern, Renegades of Pern, The Masterharper of Pern . . .).  People like to spend time on Pern.

Still, this attachment to a location or milieu only takes us so far.  When the original Pern plotline was concluded, and the new batches of characters were not quite as engaging as the first four, I confess that I gradually lost interest.  A well-loved setting can draw a viewer or reader in—but it still takes compelling characters and plots to please the audience in the long run.

That’s the primary lesson I’d take from the success of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Rogue One” so far.  Viewers and readers today seem to be more willing than in the past to invest in expanding universes as well as long story arcs—contrary to what one might call the “ADHD hypothesis” that no one today has an attention span longer than 140 characters.  This is good news for writers who are into worldbuilding.  But building a world people want to visit isn’t enough by itself.  We still need to tell a good story—no matter where it may be set.

Star Trek: Raiders of the Lost Arcs

I’m a Star Trek fan from way back.  I enjoyed “Star Trek:  Beyond.”  Why am I not more enthusiastic?

Star Trek Beyond posterStar Trek:  The Original Series (“TOS”) was almost purely episodic.  Each week, another new world or new civilization, a unique problem, a nonrepeating set of guest stars.  Each episode stood pretty much alone.  You could miss one and not be at a loss when you saw the next one, because nothing had changed.  The original “setup” was restored at the end of every show.

This wasn’t unique to Trek; it was the norm on television back in the 1960s.  “Situation comedies” were defined by a permanent “situation” that formed the basis of each week’s program.  Dramatic shows like “Bonanza” or “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” used the same method.  No matter what happened in the course of one episode, things were back to normal by the opening of the next.  The reductio ad absurdum is “Gilligan’s Island.”  There was a melancholy certainty that no matter how hopeful things seemed, they were never getting off that island.

Of course this was never entirely true.  One of the Cartwright sons on “Bonanza” was Cartwritten out of the script and disappeared.  Chekhov joined the Enterprise crew in the second season of Star Trek and stayed on thereafter.  But mostly, the “initial conditions” for each episode remained the same.

What we did not see was long-running plot arcs or character development.  Each plot had to wrap up neatly in a single episode.  Characters and relationships were static.

It’s instructive to look back and realize how much this has changed.  TV series these days are expected to have long-term plot arcs, often spanning a season or more.  A series like “Chuck” might change the plot premise significantly from one season to the next.  And viewers today are addicted to mini-series (maxi-series?) with extremely long and complex plots, as in “Game of Thrones.”

 

As the Star Trek movies came out, it presently began to seem that we were essentially seeing series episodes, but stretched out to two hours rather than one.  It left a vague feeling of being cheated.

In a typical two-hour movie, there’s time for more leisurely plot development, and one expects things to happen.  Sure, there are long-running series like the James Bond movies that cycle back to the same scenario just as the old TV series did.  But that isn’t true of most movies.  Even sequels frequently find themselves starting at a new point in narrative or character development—which was a challenge for moviemakers who merely wanted to reprise the success of the original film.

If we pass in merciful silence over Star Trek I (“The Motion Picture”), the striking thing is that the next three movies did have a continuing plot arc.  I’ve heard that they were plotted as a coherent trilogy by Harve Bennett, and that does seem to be borne out by the movies themselves.

While Star Trek II, III, and IV represented remarkably different types of films, there was a continuous thread of action.  The Enterprise crew created the Genesis planet in II, returned to that planet and saw its collapse in III, and made their own return to Earth in IV.  With side trips, of course.

And there were character changes.  One of the things that makes Star Trek II the best of the Trek films is the impact of Spock’s death, around which the entire story is carefully constructed.  Of course fans were pretty sure even then that his death wouldn’t be permanent.  But the characters didn’t know that, and we got to see how this loss affected them.  And Kirk’s son David Marcus did die for good in III—though this new character’s death didn’t have the impact of Spock’s.

Star Trek V and VI, however, were unconnected stories riffing on the same traditional characters, and momentous as the writers tried to make them, there was a distinct sense of “back to the old grind.”  VII was somewhat unique, as the intersection of the TOS crowd with “The Next Generation” (TNG) characters.  But the following movies, VIII through X, were very like individual episodes of the TNG series.

The three films beginning with the 2009 reboot also strike me as standalone episodes.  The occasional attempt to tie them back to other storylines, as with the appearance of Khan and Carol Marcus in “Into Darkness,” is offset by the disconnection from all earlier stories stemming from the timeline change in the 2009 movie.

So this year’s Star Trek entry strikes me as okay, but it lacks the cumulative force of a long-term plotline—unless perhaps you take a strong interest in the desultory Spock-Uhura romance, which so far hasn’t gripped me.

By contrast, series that do have long-term plotlines and character developments, as in Star Wars and Harry Potter, can build up quite a head of steam—and corresponding viewer loyalty—through the accumulating drama of an extended story.

 

The fact that we now expect long-form plot arcs makes for an interesting countercurrent to some of the standard assumptions about today’s audience.

It sometimes seems that we have all been seized by a collective attention deficit disorder.  Writers are warned to “hook” their readers, not in the first page or even paragraph, but in the first sentence.  Communication packets have been reduced to 140 characters.  It’s easy to bemoan how rushed we all are, and how short our attention spans.

But at the same time, modern viewers take in stride a series of six or seven movies.  Harry Potter brought a generation of viewers through eight lengthy parts without blunting their appetite for more Potteriana.  TV series routinely carry on long-drawn-out developments.  Novel readers happily consume endless serials like the Honor Harrington tales, or the fourteen massive volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  By today’s standards, the 1800-page Lord of the Rings, touted as a huge work in the 1960s, seems positively concise.

To my mind, this says something favorable about today’s readers and viewers.  We’re fond of the sound bite and tweet, yes—but we also seem willing to tackle much longer stories than in the olden days.  There may be hope for coherence and continuity yet.

The Missing Mentor

[Discussing stories in detail inevitably involves some spoilers.
The ones in this post, however, should be fairly mild.
]

Gandalf, polygon art portrait

Image from desktopimages.org

The wise old mentor is a staple, not only in fantasy, but in all kinds of stories.  From a narrative point of view, though, these mentor figures are rather an inconvenience – which is why they so frequently go missing.

Gandalf the Grey, the very archetype of the mentor in an adventuring party, is kept offstage by other engagements for much of The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien goes so far as to have him perish (not permanently, to be sure).

In the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore tends to be curiously inactive – he’s not around when the crises occur – though this changes over the course of the series, until he’s fully engaged toward the end.

Professor X, of the X-Men, is generally confined to a wheelchair, which keeps him out of the action.  In the first couple of X-Men movies, he’s also hors de combat much of the time.

Gordon Ashe, the main character’s mentor in Andre Norton’s Time Traders­ series, often happens to be sick or injured.

And of course Obi-Wan Kenobi dies about a third of the way through Star Wars:  A New Hope – even if he keeps popping up periodically through the three original episodes as a Force ghost.

Why does a writer introduce these characters, only to shuffle them offstage as soon as possible?  Consider what the mentor contributes:

  1. Power.  The mentor is often a fully-developed version of what the hero is becoming, as in Star Wars.  If not, like Gandalf, he is typically a powerful figure in his own right.
  2. Knowledge.  Gandalf knows how to terminate trolls and how to open the doors of Moria (Frodo helps in the movie, but not the book).  Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) know how to train in karate.  Obi-Wan knows where to find Yoda.
  3. Wisdom.  The mentor often advises the hero about life – not specific information, but how to live in a more global sense.  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the problems start to arise.  If the mentor is a powerful figure, why isn’t the mentor out fighting the battle, rather than sending the hapless (hero) apprentice?  The more impressive the mentor’s abilities, the harder it is to avoid having the mentor displace the hero.  With the mentor in action, things would be too easy for the main characters.  (There’s a parallel problem in children’s adventure stories – how to get the children away from parents and other caregivers so they have to act on their own.)

Knowledge poses a lesser problem, but a good storyteller still rations the mentor’s advice closely.  It makes for better drama if the hero doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t fully trained.  (The tagline for the first World of Warcraft game expansion was:  “YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!”)  Luke Skywalker is more thrilling as a brash but vulnerable neophyte facing Darth Vader than he would have been as a fully seasoned Jedi knight.  The writer may prefer to have the hero not fully informed – if only to enable a shocking surprise at the right moment.

The problems are not as severe with the mentor’s third role, as dispenser of wisdom – though it still falls to the hero to implement the teacher’s wise counsel, when the crisis comes.

Authors thus expend a lot of effort to keep mentors out of the action, leaving the heroes on their own to apply what they have learned – or fail to do so.

Gandalf dies in Moria; he returns, but by that time he’s cut off from Frodo and Sam, who most need his guidance.  (“Its name was Cirith Ungol . . . Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.”  The Two Towers, ch. IV.3)  Gandalf is present, however, for the big battle scenes, and is ready to take on the Witch-King at Minas Tirith.  In effect, Tolkien has held Gandalf’s might in reserve:  as the enemies get bigger and worse over the course of the story, it makes sense to bring the powerful mentor back in, to even the scales.  We see the same kind of progression in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore takes a more direct hand as the story goes on (though he’s removed to make the final battle more challenging).

In the Silver Age comics, the wheelchair was enough to keep Professor Xavier out of the action most of the time.  In the movies, his range and power is vastly expanded, and he has to be rendered comatose to keep him out of the fray.

George Lucas managed to eat his cake and still have it.  He opts for the drastic solution by killing off Obi-Wan for good.  But Obi-Wan’s continuation as a ghost allows him to keep providing occasional advice – not to mention retconned explanations (“From a certain point of view”).

E.E. Smith’s classic Lensman series gives us an entire species, the Arisians, as mentors.  One character, a “fusion” of four Arisians, is actually known as Mentor.  Smith crafts his story to produce fairly subtle and plot-central reasons for keeping the Arisians out of the main conflicts.  At first they need to conceal their existence from their Eddorian adversaries.  Later, they need to keep their vast powers under wraps so as not to undermine the confidence and self-reliance of the Galactic Patrol.  But the Arisians do emerge in time for the climactic battle – which could not be won without both the Arisians and the Patrol (and the Children of the Lens, but that’s another story).

The mentor isn’t always missing in action.  A writer can engage the mentor figure in the story, if proper caution is employed to dodge the above problems.  For example, the social conditions of The Karate Kid mean that Mr. Miyagi can’t simply obliterate the adversaries.  He has to equip Daniel to fight a duel, in which third parties aren’t allowed to intervene.

Another way of handling it is to have the hero and mentor fighting on separate tracks.  Thus, in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the older Zorro is supposed to be dead and has to stay in disguise for most of the story.  But during the climax he is revealed and takes on his old nemesis, while the new Zorro is saving lives and fighting his own opposite number.

One of the reasons the absent mentor appeals to us, I think, is that it reflects something we experience in real life.  As we grow older, we do leave our mentors behind.  Generally, we outlive them – and sometimes feel inadequate without the advice and assistance of those who seemed towering figures in our youth.  Yet, just as in a story, this is necessary if we are to grow up.  In the end we succeed our mentors, and become the heroes of our own stories — and, in turn, mentors to the next generation.

The Role of Science Fiction

Science fiction started out as a niche interest for a few eccentrics.  So did Tolkienesque high fantasy, though with a different group of devotees.  Fans had their conventions, their own slang, almost their own culture.  They had that bracing sense of loving something that most people—English teachers, for example—didn’t understand.

No more.  Today, fantasy and science fiction (let’s call them F&SF) have gone mainstream.  Half the movies and books these days have fantastic elements.  These stories may not “feel like” F&SF, but the trans-normal elements have crept slowly into popular culture.  Amy Wallace recently remarked in Wired:  “And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore.  It’s mainstream.”  (Nov. 2015 issue, p. 97)

To the dedicated SF fan of years gone by, it’s a little disconcerting.  We wanted to get other people interested in what we loved, of course.  But we didn’t expect this much success.

 

As to which variants are woven into mainstream books and movies, science fiction or fantasy, it isn’t always easy to say.  Harry Potter is fantasy, obviously; it’s got wizards.  The Martian is SF, and “hard science fiction” at that.  It has space travel, and the science rates very high on what TV Tropes calls the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.”

But what do we make of Groundhog Day?  The fantastic premise that sets the story going has no explanation, whether science-fictional (like the particle accelerator in the similar TV movie 12:01), or fantasy-like (as with the Chinese fortune cookie in Freaky Friday).  It’s just there.  The one thing we can say for sure is that Groundhog Day has something going for it that we don’t find in slice-of-life mainstream literature.

Even geeky main characters are in fashion, from Chuck to The Big Bang TheoryThat’s something we 20th-century geeks never expected .

 

What happens, then, when F&SF are added to the mix?  What do these literatures of the fantastic have to offer, over and above the plot and character and background elements we already love in a purely mundane Brooklyn or Titanic?  There’s a lot we can (and will) say about this, but a few things leap out.

Science fiction trains us in recognizing that the future will be different.  It doesn’t predict:  old-time SF oriduced some strikingly accurate foretellings, but just as many complete misses.  But the very variety of imagined futures shows the wide range of possibilities before us.

A science fiction reader naturally thinks in terms of change:  in society, in technology, in markets, in manners.  A people that’s used to both Star Trek and The Hunger Games will be a little more prepared for a future that’s unlike today, whether or not it looks like either of those two worlds.

 

This ought to be a reason for hope.  The future can be better than today.  Of course it can also be worse.  Yet the realization that things can be otherwise should galvanize us, wean us away from fatalism and resignation.

But very often, that’s not what we’re getting.  Today’s visions of what’s to come seem more like excuses for despair than exercises in hope.  Downbeat futures are rampant.  Teen dystopias saturate the market.  And the grown-ups aren’t doing so well either – ask any character in Game of Thrones.

Even universes that used to be more optimistic get overhauled with less liveliness and more gloom.  Compare the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek with the Roddenberry original.  Writers seem compelled to succumb to that scourge of our times, the “gritty reboot.”

 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We do see tales that evoke a more balanced picture of the world.  We can avoid the grimdark pit without falling off the other side into a blind Pollyanna optimism.  And we can have fun doing it.

Imaginative stories help us explore the whole range of possibilities – good, bad, and indifferent.  The open-endedness of science fiction and fantasy may be their greatest charm.

So let’s kick around some of the cool things about stories and storytelling, especially in the fantastic mode; some favorite (or unfavorite) books and movies and music; even some of the deeper roots out of which these stories grow.  It’ll be an adventure!