Our Lady of the Requisite Backstory

Oh the rules of fiction – in order to have the Obligatory Character Development one must provide the Requisite Backstory, even if we’re talking about your basic Canadian Cable TV Science Fiction. This series has several good ideas (Travelers, on Netflix), many good ideas in fact, that routinely get positively drowned in gooey, syrupy, dismal and dreadful back stories. The one guy’s tedious wife has a terrible pregnancy. The medic has her empathy surgically removed. The hot head is married to a wife beater. The drug addict gets addicted to new and exciting drugs. The teen football sensation who is also the world’s oldest human suffers from A.D.D. (asshole dad disease). They are a team, sent from the future by an Advanced AI (The Director) in order to change history so that there will be no such future and no such people because the future is gonna be shite. In the meantime, several sensational ideas are casually dropped in:

  • the travelers take over the bodies of people at their moment of their otherwise death (awesome!)
  • young children are temporarily used as involuntary messengers when The Director has to change plans at the last second
  • time travelers sometimes have to try six, seven, eight even nine times to fix problems, each time a new candidate occupying a dying host and then dying themselves upon failure
  • there’s a guy (Philip, the drug addict) who has every trivial detail of the known future memorized.
  • but then how every time a mission occurs the future is changed in some way so that pretty soon nobody knows what the fuck is going on
  • So Philip gets a green pill update with the new future every now and then
  • The travelers occupy bodies that are nothing like their original ones, so the black lady was never a black lady at all, the teenager was 100 years old, the medical specialist is stuck in the body of a mentally defective young woman.
  • Of course there’s a Faction (I assume they are fans of Lemony Snicket’s VFD) who are fighting against The Director but exactly How or Why or When or Whatever is never very clear.

BUT, in between all these sometimes ingenious plot devices we have minute upon minute of Exposition, Character Development, Backstory, Personal Issues, Hugging and Learning, trying so hard to get us to give a fuck about these particular “hosts”. OMG! It’s just the writingness of the thing that drives me crazy. You can just see the writers room busily filling up boxes on the story board, checking off items, working out details. Marcy needs to learn how to fuck with genuine feeling! Jeff  has to get off the booze somehow! Grant really needs to show Kat how much he truly madly deeply loves her even though she is as annoying as anyone has ever been in the history of the modern world. Trevor is goodness no matter the cost and Philip, well, Philip better damn well stock up on yellow pills because they’re the only thing that keep him from visualizing multiple alternate timelines concurrently (another nifty notion, seriously).

Every episode I’m torn between watching and turning it off, even moment by moment. Sometimes I just have to pause the show and Scream, which family does not appreciate. I want to give this show every god damn award and then take it away immediately. Love it. Hate it. Wish I could just get the parts I like dripped intravenously. Maybe The Directory can make that happen for me.


Extant, et cetera

I finished watching the science fiction TV series Extant this morning. I could only watch it through Amazon Prime which meant a 4 day delay between airings and availability – each week in the meantime I had to avoid looking at the online reviews for spoilers, and especially for the comments, which were in some ways the best thing about this series.

It had really good intentions. Many people complained about the pacing (it was kind of slow and boring at times; often when it should have been crackling it felt lethargic), but I went along with that. It seems they introduced too many leads to tidy up, but I’ve never been one to demand total cleanup. One could well ask, what happened to the immortality-seeking billionaire? He just vanished from the story line. Or, sheesh, someone call the police on the terrorist maybe? Or, did the space center blow up with the android kid or not? Nobody seemed terribly concerned about anything, “five days later”. The husband was sort of a pussy with a weird accent. I never liked him. And Halle Berry often seemed completely frozen, as if she went on periodic acting-strikes. How about when they ran away, they went to her dad’s house? Who would ever think of looking there?

And yet, there were plenty of nice litte touches. I enjoyed the mysterious and sometimes creepy little android kid. And I liked “the offstring”, a sort of mini-me Michael Jackson Thriller clonelet with occasionally bright yellow eyes who could make people inhabit physically coherent virtual realities pulled straight out of their memories a la Solaris, and thereby mind-fuck them into doing whatever it was he wanted them to do. Sometimes he seemed to have to “feed” on people’s brains. Other times, not so much. He matured from fetus to twelve year old in a few short weeks, but then stopped aging entirely, as if twelve were a perfectly capable age to stick to. He was pretty cool, messing with people’s deepest darkest desires (to have their dead daughter back again, for example) and then just offing them for no apparent reason (perhaps a double meaning on the term “offspring”). The space station was pretty cool, the artificial limb technology was sweet, the artifical intelligence experiment with the kid had tons of promise, which unfortunately got bogged down in lessons about “humanity”. Seriously,  intelligent machines will have their own realities to experience. I still hold (as I expressed in my story Renegade Robot), that a real AI won’t give a shit about people and will likely inhabit their own spheres, much as we humans have little to do with the world of hummingbirds.

You knew there was going to be a showdown between the half-alien kid and the android kid, and boy did they waste that opportunity. But I guess you can’t get everything you want. The show developed slowly, and at that pace it needed more time, maybe twice as many episodes, but there’s no luxury like that in TV land it seems.

In other notes, my nephew’s wife is a staff writer for the funny and engaging FX sitcom You’re The Worst. I can recommend that for all of the side characters as well as the main ones. There’s some great potential in there, and after its ten episode first season we’re hoping it gets more time too.

I haven’t blogged in a while. I am #stillnotwriting. I’ve been spending most of my little free time and creative energy producing short music pieces (I have a one-minute rule, an idea I got from Caveh Zahedi and his interesting movie In the Bathtub of the World, where he shot a minute of his life every day for a year and cut it down to a 90 minute film). Anyone interested in that can check it out on SoundCloud at Emergency Test Lab 29, and if not I would still highly recommend my playlist there, which currently consists mainly of the great Nu-Cumbia producers El Buho and Chancha via Circuito. I listen to these guys all day long while attempting to program in Scala, my tenth and so-far least favorite programming language. (tenth? really? basic, c, c++, java, ruby, python, perl, php, javascript, scala, yup, tenth).

I haven’t even been reading much lately. Sometimes literature and writing seems so far away. I also have little interest in the worlds of publishing or promotion these days. I did recently re-read my own sci-fi sort-of Unwritten Rules of Impossible Things and enjoyed it. I’m glad I wrote that stuff, glad I put it all online, glad I gave it all away. It’s all in its own context now, experiencing its own realities, I suppose. It doesn’t have much to do with me at this point.  It’s all in the nature of ebb and flow, input and output, it comes and goes. I say, let it come and let it go, and don’t worry about a thing, pretty mama. Chevere?


Parade’s End: The Book and the Movie

I recently watched the BBC mini-series production of Parade’s End (by Ford Madox Ford) and liked it well enough that I wanted to read the book (or books – there are four which comprise the set). I got the sense that the book ought to be much better, because there seemed to be a lot of subtleties and complexities to the characters. It turns out to be more than that. The screenplay (written by Tom Stoppard) was confusing to me and as I read the book I realized that more than just the teleplay, the major fault of the show was in the stars (ha – a play on words on The Fault in the Stars, the book and movie and cultural event currently dominating this week in America). The stars were great, and that was the problem. Who, at this point, does not enjoy watching Benedict Cumberbatch do whatever? And Rebecca Hall was brilliant as Sylvia. Adelaide Clemens, as Valentine Wannop, was irresistible – but they were all too much. The main character, Tietjins, has zero to no charisma in the book. Cumberbatch is bursting with it. Sylvia is gorgeous, vain and cruel, but more shallow than played by Hall. And Miss Wannop is not a pure angel – a good person, yes, but a hard-working and somewhat serious young woman in the book. We liked the characters in the television series more than they should be “liked”, because we like the movie stars. The characters are not meant to be loved, they are meant to be experienced. They are complex, but not confused, and in literature – great literature – you can pull that off. Books let you three-dimensionalize in your mind. Movies and TV by their nature flatten and level things out. I still enjoyed watching Parade’s End, but reading it is a treasure.

on character development

Anyone who knows me knows that I usually think of character development as being more or less a fraudulent charade. “More or less” being the operative phrase.

I was thinking of this as I re-watched seasons One and Two of ‘Homicide | Life on the Street’ after having binged on all five seasons of The Wire recently, and learning somewhere that both the series were based on the same book. I was a fan of Homicide when it originally aired in the early 90’s, when I was single and watching too much TV (X-Files? guilty. The Adventures of Brisco County. Jr? likewise). Watching The Wire and Homocide now, I’m mostly struck by their differences, though they share the same locale, vocabulary and basic plot. While The Wire was even-handed in its development of story lines between cops and criminals, Homicide was almost all cops, with criminals mainly appearing inside “the box”, being interrogated. The criminals on Homicide were all pretty much the same idiot who couldn’t get away with anything, whereas on The Wire, everybody pretty much failed at everything all the time, good guys and bad. That’s life. You try and you fail, mostly. Both series shared the same weakness (or strength, depending on your point of view) and that was the trap of character development. The writers fell in love with their characters to the extent that they periodically descended into nearly pure soap opera and the pitfalls of that variety of pop psychology which substitutes for the real complexity of human beings. For example, Detective Bayliss was molested as a child, thereby explaining everything subsequent in his life. No, no no. Lots of people are molested, clearly, and each and every one leads their own unique life before and thereafter. Individuals are far too complex to be summed up so, but this is usually what is meant by ‘character development’ – throw in a few telling incidents, stir and simmer for twenty minutes and voila, your character is served.

I’d rather draw my own conclusions about individuals from their actions and their words. It’s a fine line for writers. You want to get inside their heads, and “explaining” them by some snippets of history often seems an easier shortcut.

(fo0tnote: it’s no accident that the best episode of Homicide’s first two seasons was ‘Bop Gun’, featuring Robin Williams and written by David Simon himself. It felt very much like The Wire)

Irreconcilable Differences and Drama

This topic occurred to me while watching Season Three of The Wire on HBO Go. As the season unfolds one of the more interesting story lines is the tragic dissolution of the partnership between two drug dealers – Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. They had grown up and built their empire together, one being more ‘the brains’ and the other being more ‘the brawn’. These roles were expressions of the characters’ true natures and eventually led them apart. What made them strong at first, later made them weak, both individually and together. This was very well presented by the writers of the show (and the actors, etc …), giving the series a Kurosawa-esque feel.

The gangster couldn’t stop being a thug even when it went against his interests – he only needed to sit back and rake in the money but couldn’t help himself. He loved the war and didn’t want to stop fighting. The businessman also couldn’t contain his business instincts, always pursuing more and more money, making him vulnerable to con men even savvier than himself. The two eventually betray each other, because they’re getting in each other’s way, and in the end they both suffer for it.

What interested me, beside the sheer drama, was the parallel this has to the concept of irreconcilable differences and the ways that relationships end. One partner wants stability, the other wants adventure. One wants more while the other is content. There are any number of ways that marriages, friendships, partnerships, etc … fray and fall apart. Some differences can be reconciled. Others cannot.

There are said to be only a certain number of ‘plots’ that writers re-hash over and again, but what is plot without drama, and what is drama except the relationship between and among people? Drama is where a story gets emotional and interesting. Plot is just for fun.

Now a Roku channel


Not available anywhere at all (not yet). It’s not hard to make a Roku channel. The sample code from the Roku Developer SDK is quite useful, and all you need is a good idea, a media server, and a little bit of effort. My channel here streams the most recent images from this wordpress blog. I might just make it a public channel at some point – it would be free, of course.

There are all sorts of Roku channels out there – Oregon Beaches, for example. You never know. Almost anything that can be streamed from the web can be streamed to a Roku set top box. It would be a good place for artists to showcase their work. You could even stream your audiobooks that way if you were so inclined (and even have the audio play along with a slideshow).