If you have ever watched commercial programming on television you may already be aware of this, but sometimes the shows repeat plot points. Surprising but true. It generally works something like the instructions on a shampoo bottle:
- Hire a core troupe of actors and put them in a setting, like a meat packing plant or a sewer treatment facility
- Go through the episodic table of plot elements
- After a certain period of time, usually 3-7 years, replace the actors and the setting, like the actuarial tables dept. at an insurance company
- Rinse and repeat
When watching a show with my wife, within the first 30 seconds I’ll shout out the plot variation as soon as it is recognized. Trust me, she really loves this. “Oh, god, no!! It’s plot #42. Wacky birthing episode ending with a touching isn’t-that-thing-cute moment. I’ll be on the computer. Let me know when it’s over.”
Here’s a few excerpts from the episodic table:
- A previously unknown family member of a main character comes to visit for a short time (father, mother, brother, sister, child, etc.)
- A main character is extremely distressed because an extended family member gets engaged, married, divorced, is involved in adultery or illicit love affair and/or dies
- Two main characters are involved in a marriage proposal, wedding, break-up, divorce, adoption, pregnancy and/or birthing
Even with those three limited examples from the table the possibilities are almost endless. I bet they could be used to generate over 500 specific plots. Mother and cousin come to visit. Father and sister die. Brother and niece get engaged. Mother pregnant, father having an affair. Father pregnant, mother having an affair. Yep, the permutations are practically unlimited.
When watching Northern Exposure the other day I noticed one of the rarer elements. “Looks like #138 coming our way,” I shouted. A mute traveling performer had been courting one of the main characters for several episodes. Sagely, I predicted, “I’ll bet the mute guy is moved to speak in a moment that will be especially poignant.” It was so touching, that I nailed it, I mean. My wife couldn’t have been more pleased.
The episodic table easily applies to movies, too. George Lucas, for example, often calls crap like this “notes” that are repeated across films, again and again and again and again and again. Did I mention again? To make this point I’ll now transport you from one galaxy far away to a make-believe land of medieval sex, violence and political intrigue. It won’t require that much suspension of disbelief.
Or, as I like to call it, “A Note Ripped From Star Wars By Game Of Thrones.” Introducing element #78: The Fake Greeting.
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I don’t normally review movies as this space is reserved for more critical thoughts. This is a much needed one time exception. But I refuse to call this a “review.” I’m not going to re-view this shit ever again. -Ed.
Oops. Did the preceding comment give too much away? It was merely supposed to be a fluff piece of exposition to establish foundation. Spoiler alert. My bad. You might say I didn’t like this movie much. Now I’m going to spend some time trying to convince you why. If you like being pathetic and having absolutely no shame, read on with me, won’t you?
Nothing is worse than having a Netflix full of
steaming streaming content. And yet there I was on the sofa, seven remote controls balanced carefully on my belly, and pounding my skull repeatedly with a hammer.
In that vein, I enthusiastically decided to queue up The Paperboy. I wasn’t quite ready to put my hand in the garbage disposal yet. At least, I hoped, someone was going to spread that paper on the floor and some business would get done. (Poop tag earned.)
Prima facie, the movie is presented to the public ostensibly as an “entertainment.”
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Twitter-sized movie recaps. This week, Star Trek (reboot). Plot summary: “The Enterprise travels from Earth to Vulcan and back again.” #tsmr
—As seen on Twitter
Think about it! What was the plot – in a nutshell – of the recent “reboot” Star Trek movie?
Stripped down, it is basically this: The Enterprise travels to Vulcan. The Enterprise travels back to Earth.
Wow. Abrams really is some kind of wundergenius. Naturally I’m waiting to see what he’s got up his sleeve for Star Trek II. (He’s listed as a producer over on IMDb.)
Besides shaking the old school cameras, what else has he got?
This is what we know. (And by “know,” of course, I mean guesses I’m pulling out of my ass.)
Spock Jr. decidedly won’t be needing any pon farr. Certainly not while he’s pluggin’ into Uhura’s communication board. (How the new timeline caused them to somehow hook up remains totally unexplained, just like every other Abrams plot twist.) So we can forget about any pon farr scenes.
After successfully hitting so many “notes” in the first film, the movie makers will be tempted and unable to resist including many more. This includes:
- Chekov firing torpedoes.
- Uhura singing.
- Sulu fencing.
- Nurse Chapel hanging around sick bay, and perhaps trying to steal Spock from Uhura.
- The Enterprise bumps into Khan.
- Kirk defeating a robot with some wacky logic.
- Scotty claiming he canna change the laws of physics – and then doing exactly that.
- A Vulcan nerve pinch.
- Someone working out in the ship’s gymnasium.
- A food replicator making little cubes of gelatin.
- A humorous interaction with the ship’s computer.
- Yeoman Janice Rand bringing the Captain an iPad with gratuitous product placement bonus.
- Klingons with old skool bumpy foreheads and Next Gen pain sticks.
- A quick diversion into the Mirror universe.
- A tribble.
- Dr. McCoy claiming he’s a doctor and not a [insert best guess here] – most likely “Ship’s Counselor.”
- A transporter malfunction and/or amazing save.
- A tricorder.
- The birth of Jean-Luc Picard in a vineyard in France where his father is heard to exclaim, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”
- Tholians and their “web.”
- The Prime Directive will be broken in a bold move that will earn Kirk a citation.
- The fate of all humanity will hang in the balance so Captain Kirk can save the galaxy one more time. No lesser stakes would be acceptable.
Defying the laws of Hollywood physics, the next movie will not have any time travel elements. That will be a first in the movie franchise. This will widely be viewed as another groundbreaking move by Abrams.
A brief diversion regarding so-called “Notes”
I first heard of the concept of so-called “notes” in movie-making courtesy of George Lucas. To him, a “note” is doing the same shit twice. A note is a device for discouraging original thought.
For example, in the first Star Wars movie, aptly named “Star Wars” (long before any of that renumbering trilogy horseshit) a few things happened:
- Someone said, “Look at the size of that thing!”
- Someone said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
- Someone said, “Nooooooooooooooooooooo!”
Lucas, in a fit a pure genius, decided it would be wise to include those exact same phrases in everything else he made for the rest of his life. Those phrases appeared verbatim during a love scene between Han Solo and Leia Organa, but unfortunately that scene ended up on the cutting room floor. But Lucas was still able to get those phrases repeated ad infinitum all over the rest of that damn galaxy.
Here’s a little memorandum to George Lucas, the brilliant guy who wrote the Solo/Greedo scene and the douchnozzle who went back and ruined the Solo/Greedo scene: Notes aren’t notes. They’re just re-hash of the same shit!
Star Trek II – The Wrath of Spock
Captain’s log, Stardate 1312.4. The Enterprise and crew have been ordered to an area of space unexplored by the Federation, where literally no man has gone before. Our mission is to create star maps of the region. This is our first deep space voyage. Our new navigator, Dave Bailey, has relived Chekov who volunteered for cryogenic experimentation. Meanwhile, the further we travel from Earth, the more … human … my First Officer seems to get. I’m worried about my friend…
Here are my suggestions on the next Star Trek movie:
Spock is increasingly obsessed about the loss of his home planet, Vulcan, and he’s tormented by haunting dreams of his dead mother. His beliefs shaken by the revelation from his father, the Ambassador, that he married a human out of love, Spock is conflicted. Even inventing a 3D form of chess can’t relieve his anguish. (Technical note: That chess game is going to look soooo bitchen in 3D.)
Meanwhile the Enterprise is ordered to a previously unexplored region of space to create star maps. Starfleet Command envisions the mission as a relatively safe way to shakedown the ship and provide the new Captain and crew with valuable experience.
Out of desperation, Spock devises a plan to save Vulcan and his mother. He is well aware of the existence of red matter, and its ability to generate rips in time, but red matter no longer exists since Nero’s ship was destroyed, and it won’t be invented again for another 100 years. Spock theorizes that matter and anti-matter colliding could conceivably send the Enterprise back in time, but he lacks the computational abilities.
Spock continues to obsess about time warp calculations and his duties as Science Officer suffer, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Captain Kirk. McCoy interrupts a heated discussion between Kirk and Spock in the Captain’s Quarters. Spock reveals his plan save Vulcan and is expressly forbidden to pursue the research by Kirk.
Rebuffed, Spock retreats to his quarters and tries in vain to meditate, only to realize he knows of a place where he can obtain the knowledge needed for his plan. He knows that Kirk met future-Spock on the ice planet and reasons that a mind meld between the two must have taken place. Spock realizes that he can access scientific knowledge from future-Spock indirectly through Kirk’s mind.
Spock isolates Kirk and a terrible fight takes places. Kirk is defeated by Spock. Spock initiates the mind meld and gains the knowledge he seeks, and something more, something unexpected.
As part of a science experiment in cryogenic freezing, Chekov is thawed out. Later, the Enterprise encounters the SS Botany Bay drifting in space. Using knowledge acquired from the experiments on Chekov, Dr. McCoy is able to thaw out Khan Noonien Singh, one of the word tyrants from Earth’s past.
A three-way battle for control of the Enterprise erupts. Spock initially seizes control but at the last minute aborts his plan to join forces with Kirk, because only together can they defeat Khan.
After Khan gains irrevocable control of the ship, an unbreakable friendship will be forged and there will be some tough choices to be made to save the ship and determine the fate of all mankind…
Sorry. That’s where my creativity ends. At least for today. Oh yeah, they also drop off Navigator Bailey with Ron Howard’s brother AKA “Balok.”
I’ll need just a bit of tranya to finish my screenplay. To that end, I propose a toast!
As a kid, I used to lay awake and think
When was Santana gonna make a drink?
But now I’m all grown and my dream came true
Santana tranya, from Beta Quadrant to you!
Editor’s note: We realize we have violated the nerd precept that Star Trek and Star Wars can’t be mentioned in the same post but we’re out of time to edit. Deal with it.
J.J. Abrams is supposed to have the Midas touch. Like many who have had some success in Hollywood, he’s gone on to stick his fingers in a lot of pies. One of those pies was the heavily promoted television series Undercovers. He is the creator of the series and an executive producer. The series was about a husband and wife, both former employees of the CIA, who run a catering business and are then recruited back to the CIA to work as a team on jobs the regular CIA “can’t handle.”
When word got out that he was shopping Undercovers it prompted a minor bidding war.
Only 11 of the original 13 episodes of Undercovers ever aired and the show was canceled on November 4, 2010, when NBC decided not to order any additional episodes.
Who is Abrams? Perhaps most notably he is known for directing the “reboot” of the Star Trek movie franchise. He’s also well known for the television series Lost.
He was a big part of Lost. He was an executive producer and wrote and directed the two-part pilot. He wrote the teleplay for the season three premier episode. He also remained involved until the end of Lost by participating in meetings about the “direction and mythology” of the show.
Mythology? Gimmie a break.
The Midas touch of Abrams is supposedly that he knows how to bring “entertainment.” He fixed the old and busted Star Trek movie franchise when he “sexed it up” by borrowing lessons he learned from Star Wars. Namely a faster pace and more action. This made the movie more relevant to a culture of young people raised on television, social media and cell phones. You know, an entire generation with ADHD. He also liked to jiggle the movie cameras during the filming of Star Trek. (This gives the movie a little bit of that Jason Bourne feel.) According to the production crew Abrams was the only one who could jiggle the movie cameras in exactly the right way, although there was apparently at least one other person he sometimes trusted with the responsibility. Lastly, Abrams friggin’ loves lens flares.
To recap: Abrams skills include speeding things up, jiggling cameras and filming lens flares.
Consider that for a moment. As far as “entertainment” is concerned, might there be anything missing from that list of skills?
Might it have anything to do with the word “plot?”
Memo to Abrams. Subject: Plot
That’s right. Plot. Plot matters. If you are an entertainer in the world of fiction, plot is, at least partially, your bread and butter. The people who watch are your customers and plot is a major component of your product.
Therefore you better not fuck around with the story too much. It needs to make sense. You simply can’t have too many gaping holes.
How well did the series Lost function as storytelling? Were there any plot lines that simply made no sense, even within the context of Lost mythology? Were there any questions that were never answered?
The very best illustration of Abrams abilities as a storyteller in regards to Lost can be found here: Unanswered Lost Questions.
Simply put: I feel Abrams is a little too blasé and indifferent to plot.
In the movie Star Trek the Spock character abandons Kirk on an dangerous icy planet simply because of a verbal disagreement. Illogical! This is too much of a plot contrivance in that it is something Spock would never do in that situation. It makes absolutely no friggin’ sense. Yet it is a convenient and expedient way to move the story forward, especially when one wants to maintain a fast pace. They needed future-Spock and young-Kirk to meet to set up some other situations in the story later on. They came up with an extremely stupid way to do it.
In the world of Abrams anything is possible. There is no limit. Your heroes are in danger? Have one of them pull a magic rock out of their pocket. A magic rock which has never been seen in your story before. Make that magic rock create a force field that causes bullets to bounce off, then transport the heroes to safety, leaving the bad guys behind with wiped memories to avoid unnecessary confusion to the plot later on. The heroes are safe, the rock goes back in the pocket. Now, here’s the good part. Aside from a couple of comments (maybe) from those who were with the hero, the rock is never explained and never seen again. Even in situations where the rock could easily save their bacon again and again and again. Details like this don’t matter, only that the “entertainment” moves on.
A little bit of shit like this can be accepted by the audience if the rest of the story makes enough sense in the context of the world they are being asked to believe. Too much of this and whole thing breaks down. The audience realizes that the “entertainment” has no real meaning, so there is nothing left for them to feel emotionally invested. The audience will simply stop caring about the story being told.
When I’m in the story, I forget about myself and that I’m sitting in a chair in a movie theater and sucking down Skittles and washing them down with soda. That’s when storytelling is at its best. If a cell phone rings by the asshole a few seats away I’m brought crashing back to reality. I’m suddenly aware again that I’m sitting in a theater and I become aware of my chair.
Too many bullshit plot developments cause the exact same phenomenon.
I remember the moment when Spock shot Kirk down to the ice planet. I was back in my chair looking around the room to see how everyone else was absorbing the bullshit. I was not in the story.
There has to be integrity to the story and the craft of storytelling. Otherwise it’s all just good looking people in exotic environments fooling around with lots of bells and whistles. No one will really give a shit. Plot is what gives the entertainment its meaning. It’s like trying to get excited about the Super Bowl when you already know who won.
I watched the first few seasons of Lost with interest. Especially season one. But with each passing episode I found myself giving less and less of a shit. As the weird plot contrivances kept adding up, and things made less and less sense, I found myself feeling like I could care less. A lot less. Eventually I didn’t care at all and I stopped watching the show. Too this day I don’t know the final resolution with the various characters, who went back to the island, who was saved, who was lost, why things worked, the time warps, etc. I simply don’t care.
Hell, I cared way more about the characters on the TV series Friends than I did about anyone from Lost.
The television series Lost, under the direction of the storyteller Abrams, was a turning point for me. It was the first moment in my life when I stopped and really thought about the “entertainments” I had been consuming. Yes, I knew they were actors playing fictional roles. But part of me wanted to be entertained like that. I wanted to get to know these fictional characters and care about what happened to them. But in the end, thanks to Abrams, that feeling was destroyed. To me, that’s the only thing that has been Lost.
Will Sam Malone and Diane Chambers ever get back together? Will Miles Crane and Daphne Moon get it on, and if so, will she be required to clean up the mess? Will Ensign Tom Paris successfully kiss the half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres, and if so, will she bite off his lip?
Real storytellers who make you care about the outcomes of such things have successfully created something known as “tension.” When you magically whip too many rabbits out of a hat and never explain them, the audience believes you when you are effectively telling them, “there is no tension here.”
That’s what Abrams has done to me. And that’s why I no longer have much interest in fictional entertainments. Oh sure, I’ll still watch the next Star Trek movie, but when I find myself feeling less than thrilled, I’ll know exactly the reason why.
No doubt Abrams will continue to enjoy success in the future. Our ADHD culture will lap out what he dishes out while never realizing the difference. I find that a bit sad.