Posts Tagged character development

A Writer Reviews: What Remains vs The Naked Now

If I am to criticize a show for what I feel it is doing wrong, I suppose it is only fair that I applaud when it corrects course.  And so I am here to applaud last night’s episode of Terra Nova, which did something I’ve never seen a show do before: use amnesia to further characters.  But first, because I’m a fan of when things go wrong, I’m going to look at a show that went horribly wrong with a similar plot device.

I’m going to look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Specifically a first season episode called The Naked Now.  This is an infamously bad episode, nestled firmly in that rocky first half of a first season that included vaguely African civilizations used to recreate the Ponn Farr duel from the original series, and Wesley Crusher at his most annoying.  The Naked Now was the first episode after the pilot, and if you don’t recognize the name, most fans of the show will recognize it from one scene.  It’s the episode where Data is “fully functional.”

There is oh so much that can be criticized about that episode.  If I were writing a full review of it, I’d scarcely know where to start.  But if I’m talking Terra Nova, I’m talking characters, so I’m going to stick to that.  This was a new show, fresh of an ambitious pilot meant to relaunch a franchise to television.  In doing so, it chose to pull a familiar plot line from the original series, The Naked Time, and I can’t fault it for doing so in order to create continuity.  What I can fault it for was the decision to take the second episode of a new series, when viewers don’t yet know the characters, and choose to make them all act out of character.  As the sort of contagious drunkenness moves through the crew one by one, they lose their inhibitions and become entirely different people than they will be for the rest of the series.

This is not characterization.  This is the exact opposite.  It’s something that requires a well established baseline so we, the viewers, can sit down and say “aha, Picard wouldn’t act like that!  He must be infected!”  But we don’t know these things.  The show wasted what was its first chance to establish characters for the crew, many of whom got only brief introductions in the pilot.  Instead, we’re left with a confusing mish-mash and a disturbing mental image of android/human sexual relations.

When I saw the trailers for last night’s Terra Nova episode, I worried the show was going in a similar direction.  These ads promised a virus that was wiping out the memories of the settlers, one-by-one.  While it’s not a highly contagious virus simulating drunkenness, amnesia is still a plot device that causes a character to act against type and against previous characterization.  It is also, to be blunt, a weak plot device often better deployed in sitcoms as they run out of steam and are desperate for stories.

Color me surprised, therefore, when the show found a unique twist on amnesia by having characters not forget who they are.  Instead the virus only allows them to remember who they were, rolling their brains back roughly twenty years.  This allowed the show a way to fill in the characters of Commander Taylor, Elisabeth, and Malcolm Wallace, introduced last week.  Through the retrograde memory the viewers got a chance to see their pasts in a way that didn’t require flashing back to the rather expensive dystopian future shown in the pilot.  Jim also got a chance to interact with Malcolm, and briefly the new girlfriend and boyfriend of his son and daughter.  The character played against some of the archetypal problems highlighted previous, and actually became a character in the process.  Specifically, it feels like he’s turning into Jack Carter from Eureka, but that’s a far better choice than the Jim Shannon from the first three hours of Terra Nova.

Characters, then.  They need to exist.  And I mean that more than “you must have characters,” I mean that in the sense that characters need to feel like real people.  Like you could meet them on the street.  This is what Terra Nova finally felt like it was doing last night.  If characters are going to act inconsistently for plot purposes, there needs to be an established baseline of what consistent is.  That was the trap of The Naked Now, and that was the trap that What Remains came nowhere near.  This is important in serialized television, it’s important in novels, it’s important in short stories.  I’m hoping Terra Nova is on the right path now with actually characterizing their characters.

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A Writer Reviews: Thor

Recently I read Blake Snyder’s classic screenwriting instruction manual Save The Cat.  The book is perhaps best known for introducing the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, or BSBS for short, a formulaic approach to writing screenplays that can be used to analyze the seemingly most unformulaic of movies.  Even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is given a Beat Sheet breakdown in the sequel Save The Cat Goes to the Movies.  These books have been revitalizing my interest in screenwriting, and I’ve been trying to get into the right mindset for going through the Beat Sheet.  However, it takes a lot of concentrating on a movie, which is something I’m not very good at.  Oh, I’ll catch all the plot elements and am usually not the person wandering out blinking into the sun asking what a character’s motivation was.  No, when I mean concentrating on a movie, I mean being able to break it down to base elements, run it through the beat sheet, and start recognizing where the act breaks are, where the midpoint is.  I have to see a movie several times so that I can turn off the part of my brain attempting to be entertained and turn on the part that can look at plot.

And therein lies the problem with Thor.  I went to see it over the weekend, and was able to start Beat Sheeting the movie, especially using two of Blake Snyder’s favorites the “Whiff of Death” moment and the “Break Into Three”.  There was something that was simply failing to engage me about the movie.

And it all started to come back to writing, and the fact that there are some universals when it comes to writing, whether it be for the page or for the screen.  The first and foremost of these is “show, don’t tell.”  Throughout the movie we are constantly being told what a brilliant scientist Natalie Portman’s character is.  But that’s really it.  We’re being told this without there being any moment in the movie where her knowledge is called on to solve a problem.  She is allowed absolutely no chance to participate in the story other than being Thor’s chauffeur and love interest.  This is, mind, the biggest name actor that the movie had going for it, and the clear number two character in the work, but she’s not given anything to actually work with to prove that she earned that Oscar she won a few years ago.  Now I’m not going to say that Oscar winners are never allowed to do fluff pieces after bringing home their trophies, but it’s a clear disappointment when an actress recognized for her talent is given such a one dimensional character.  And all because we’re only told she is such a great scientist without ever being shown it.

Character development.  Characters have to grow and change over the course of any narrative.  Hopefully all of them, but at the very least the protagonist.  And this is not one of the failings of Thor.  Through the movie Thor transitions from being a head-strong warrior who doesn’t care about consequences to being a more level headed and caring leader.  Which is great, and it’s the transition that the character needs to make.  However, the problem comes in when the impetus for change feels insufficient.  The path that he takes is such a short one that, as an audience member, I don’t feel like I’ve journeyed it with him.  And this is a problem with a lot of super hero movies, the films have to try extra hard to make the audience identify with a character so much different than they are.  It’s why Superman never really works on the screen, because he can’t be made as compelling as an audience wants.  And it’s part of what happens for Thor.  There’s nothing about the transition he makes that’s compelling, because it all has to be done so quickly because the movie has to fit in all the required elements as well.

Ah, the required elements.  It felt like no one had their heart in the necessary “I’ll join The Avengers” scene that got tacked into the movie, as Thor walks up to a guy who had spent a good part of the movie holding him hostage and tormenting him and saying what amounted to, “hey, if you guys are forming some super hero team that I would have no way of knowing about count me in!”  I could almost hear Kenneth Branagh gritting his teeth through the filming of that.

In the end the movie simply suffers.  It suffers from telling not showing.  It suffers from poorly laid out character growth.  It suffers from being filmed as an obligation towards The Avengers.  It’s fun to watch, certainly.  But it doesn’t really hold up in any way, and will probably go down as the weak link in the build-up to next year’s The Avengers, barring some complete collapse on the part of Captain America.

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