The Orville is not Star Trek But It Really Wants To Be

Star Trek: Discovery was one of the best attempts to insult an entire fanbase in a single go I’ve ever seen. Many disappointed Trekkies turned to The Orville, on Fox, to see if it was any good. Intrigued, I went as well, less to find a replacement for Star Trek and more as a curious scifi connoisseur. The results were…. mixed.

Seth Macfarlane thinks he’s funny. I don’t. Seth Macfarlane loves Star Trek. So do I. Seth Macfarlane is best known for producing “humor” for Fox, and got to make The Orville in no small part because he’s brought the network a lot of money in the past. That he would be expected to blend the two together is no surprise. Whether it works and can keep working is another question entirely.

The Orville‘s biggest strength is Seth Macfarlane’s love for the genre and his desire to tribute it. It’s biggest weakness is Macfarlane’s extremely questionable sense of humor.

Let me start by praising the show. The Orville looks far more like Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything we’ve seen on CBS. It’s bright, it’s positive, it’s ambitious and cooperative. It tackles social questions in quirky ways that sometimes hit and sometimes miss. There are also some pretty big differences from Star Trek. The most glaring is the way The Orville relies heavily on Macfarlane’s sense of humor to fill running time.

It’s hard to come up with a good way to look at The Orville, as it’s not Star Trek but so closely mimics the Star Trek format that it’s hard to draw a meaningful distinction. The Trek formula, as noted last week, is much about the Crew confronting Problems in Space and Solving them. The crew is very much a unit, although Captain Mercer (Seth Macfarlane) and Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) play a slightly larger role than the others. The Orville itself hasn’t developed much of a personality yet, although it hasn’t been blown to shreds yet and it does have the advantage of being a very pretty vehicle with a distinctive silhouette and we get to see a lot of shots of it doing interesting things in the pilot episode and the opening credits.

Also, kudos to The Orville showrunners for seeing the importance of the opening credits for setting the tone of the show. Unlike the Discovery opening, which makes the show seem like it’s about equipment schematics, The Orville opens with the beauty and wonder of space and shows the ship taking us on a romp through it. Exactly what we want to see.

The acting is pretty good. This is my first time seeing Macfarlane live on camera and I find him to be a pretty charismatic guy. The whole cast does well with their parts but major props go to Peter Macon as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus, who has mastered the Worf effect of emoting constantly in spite of speaking very little and being locked behind serious prosthetics. The casting goes one step further with Halston Sage, who plays Lt. Alara Kitan. Kitan is an alien from a high gravity world and she is shorter and more compact than the other crew, which is the kind of build suggested by our modern understanding of gravity and human/humanoid physiology. There’s real chemistry among the crew as well, especially between Macfarlane and his costars.

However, while Macfarlane as an actor brings some of the strongest chops The Orville has, he’s the show’s greatest weakness as well. His sense of “humor” revolves around setting up incredibly awkward situations and expecting us to laugh at them, as in the sequence where Mercer and Grayson – a divorced couple – get stuck talking to Mercer’s parents on the bridge of their ship in “Command Performance”. Or the awkward elevator sequence in “If the Stars Should Appear”. Then there’s the reliance on non-sequitors for humor, which generally whiffs as in the Elvis’ Last Words bit in “Command Performance” and a general reliance on crude humor which is going to be very subjective. Humor, of course, is subjective over all but this show is going to be more subjective than most. For me, only about 15-20% of the humor lands and the rest is eyerolling at best or interrupts my immersion in the show at worst.

It’s too bad because The Orville does do one thing perfectly and that, surprisingly enough, is engaging with the cultural issues of the day in a thoughtful manner. “About a Girl” tackles a wide swath of issues from transgenderism and parenting to gender roles in ways that are not always well thought out but clearly come from a position of respect and compassion and never offers us easy answers or pat moralizing. “Command Performance” is a well thought out, show length gag at the expense of reality TV and its effects on our culture and privacy. “If the Stars Should Appear” questions where we will put the balance between systems that have kept us alive and well and the omnipresent need to change and grow. Of them all, “If the Stars Should Appear” is the most pat and tropey but still manages to make overtures to both sides of its discussion, a feature missing from most media looking at the modern culture wars.

Most of all, The Orville is optimistic. Where many shows today are postmoderm pessimism fests The Orville is bright and energetic, chasing that future it’s sure we can find if we just pull together and put our best foot forward. There’s a place for everyone there, from the self-satisfied and superior robot Isaac to the taciturn and antisocial Bortus, and everyone in between. I’m not sure how much more of The Orville I’ll watch but I praise Macfarlane for putting the show together. In spite of its flaws it’s exactly what we need more of – a show that tries to keep an open mind while looking for the brightest future it can find.

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This is a Post About Star Trek Discovery

This post is not about the mean spirited, self congratulatory way the series was marketed. It is not about the absurd way the achievements of Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Avery Brooks, Tim Russ, Garrett Wang and many others who I am no doubt forgetting were ignored in the rush to congratulate the cast of Discovery. Believe me, I feel that clear disrespect was shown to all the cast and crew of previous Trek series in the way the rollout for Discovery was handled. But I’m not going to talk about it. I feel it, but it’s not what we’re here for today. If you need to get it out of your system you can go and scream into that hole I dug in the corner. And while we’re waiting for the concrete to mix so we can patch it, let’s take a look at what really matters here.

You see, there’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes, particularly when you’re restarting a semi-dead franchise, you have to build up what’s in the here and now as hard and as you can just to get attention and hope it’s enough pull in people outside your hardcore fanbase. Yes, said fanbase might not like you’re overlooking the past for the present. Yes, that goes triple or more for a fanbase as rabid as Trekkies. But if your goal is to serve the franchise as well as you can, make a great piece of entertainment and bring the greatness of a franchise like Star Trek to a new generation then sometimes these are the compromises you must make. I would have forgiven CBS in a heartbeat if Discovery had been great Star Trek. If it had been good Star Trek I would have forgiven them eventually.

Discovery is not Star Trek.

There’s a veneer of things that look and sound like Star Trek all over the series. It has the name, the logo, the door sound effect, the languages and vague look of some of the characters. There’s even a guy name Sarek on the show, though he doesn’t act anything like Spock’s father. And that’s the problem with all these vaguely familiar touchstones. They look like they should be familiar but all the things that made them familiar have been hollowed out and replaced with vomit.

For this we are supposed to be grateful that we have a new Star Trek show to watch.

I am not.

We’re going to start with how Discovery betrayed the very concept of Star Trek, then touch on all the ways the show also ignored the story of Star Trek. Then we’re going to talk a little about how Discovery fails as TV show. But before that, for exactly two paragraphs, I hope you’ll forgive me for being nice to Discovery for just a second.

CBS has set a new bar for special effects in a TV show. The design and execution of the visuals, from make up to starscapes to the look of the starships and the feel of them maneuvering through space, it’s all great. Everything, down to small details like how the starships are never aligned with each other, instead having slightly different axis and lines of travel as you’d expect of two ships in the 3d vastness of space, works like magic. It’s beautiful. I know the design of the ship Discovery itself drew a lot of flack and it’s certainly not as nice looking as the Shenzhou, the ship in the first two episodes, which leads me to wonder why they didn’t just use the Shenzhou design for the whole show.

Furthermore, the story itself could be good. It’s not something I’d want to watch with the current main character, Mike the Girl, in the lead and in fact the way it was executed in the first two episodes doesn’t fill me with confidence. But that may be all the other problems the show has clouding my judgment. Regardless, with a different writing team and it’s own brand Discovery could possibly have been something I enjoyed. But the thing is… the story isn’t Star Trek.

From the very beginning, Star Trek has been about people in space, solving problems by working with one another. Whenever Our Heroes would encounter a problem they’d pull out their trusty tricorders and switch on the sound effects, angle the shields in case of trouble and start reversing polarities until they found a solution. The point wasn’t the science, which was pretty flimsy, and it wasn’t the morals, although they were definitely there. What made Star Trek definitively Star Trek was when the crew – regardless of what ship or station they were on – went out into the great limitless Out There and confronted a Problem. There were new Problems almost every week, and some Problems were so big they’d come up again and again, never quite solved. But for the most part the wonder and vastness of the Cosmos would bring us something new and unique and possibly dangerous but definitely interesting and the crew would pull together and solve it.

There’s no want in Star Trek’s time. Replicators and antimatter reactors solved it. There’s no ethnicity in Star Trek’s time. The Eugenics Wars made it irrelevant. All the problems left are problems of people – conflicting personalities and priorities, alien cultures and philosophies, ignorance, disease and old age. And no matter how daunting they seemed, when the crew pulled together and relied on one another’s skills and insights, grit their teeth at each other’s rough spots and valued each other for their strengths, then the Problem could be solved.

In Star Trek, there is no main character. Yes, the captains/commanders did get a little more emphasis, as on a ship the captain has final say in most matters. But ultimately the crew had to function as a unit to tackle their Problems. Each member of the crew was the lead at least once a season. Faces came and went, but the crew endured. The ship itself came to be a character, from the stubborn workhorse nature of the Constitution-class Enterprise to the tricky two-in-one design of the Galaxy-class, ship and crew alike were stars of the show. Trying to separate them out would be foolish.

Discovery is different.

For starters, they wreck the first ship after two episodes. (I don’t care about spoiling this show and neither should you.) But worse, Discovery has a main character. Star Trek isn’t about one character. It’s about all of them choosing to collaborate and make something greater than themselves. That kind of idealistic storytelling was a little utopian, sure, but the purity – and occasional corniness – of it was part of the charm. Discovery promises to be a deep dive into one character. Something that far too many shows are trying to be these days. Why not stick to what Star Trek has always been and, at the same time, show how you’re different from the rest of the crowd? But Discovery chose to discard that and loose one of it’s greatest strengths.

It gets worse.

Discovery has trashed Star Trek’s longstanding lore and history. Vulcans have gone from an intensely, self-destructively pacifistic race that exercises rigid self control to generic, psudospiritual space elves that is willing to attack Klingons on sight because of a single encounter that went badly. Gone is logic ruling over emotions so that the wild passions of Vulcan would not eat its own people alive. Instead there is awkwardly expressed sentiment free of any reasoning principles at all. There’s a person named Sarek on the screen but he doesn’t sound anything like Spock’s father. And it’s not just because of the actor is different.

Klingons suffer the most in the pilot episodes. Kahless the Unforgettable, the Klingon’s Buddha-esque figure, who taught them the ways of honor and enlightenment, has morphed into some sort of weird pseudo Mohammed, driving them to acts of martyrdom.

I understand that this wasn’t the goal of the creators. They reportedly wanted Klingons to be the space-KKK. This is stupid, not because there’s no role for the space-KKK but because Klingons are the wrong choice for two reasons. First, visually and culturally, they’re meant to be Asian analogs. Yes, most Asian cultures are ethno-supremacists like the KKK but the most important part of their culture is their closely knit family systems, which the patronymics and clans of the Klingons harken to. Kahless’ system of honor is a simulacrum of bushido (and chivalry but mostly bushido) and his teachings, again, are more about enlightenment, courage and fidelity than race or purity. This transformation is a real reach.

Second, Star Trek already has the space-KKK, they’re called Romulans. They could have fit the role seamlessly with no major changes to what’s known about them or their philosophies. It’s almost as if whoever wrote this trainwreck knew nothing about Star Trek lore at all.

Let’s talk some more about Klingons for a second. Some idiot in CBS’ Makeup room decided Klingons needed to be space orcs now. No. No no no no no. You cannot bury 85% of the actors faces under two inches of rubber prosthetics and expect them to emote. Michael Dorn brought a subtlety and breadth of emotion to Worf that made him one of the most memorable characters in Star Trek canon and he did it because we could see his expressions clearly and understand that, even when he was not talking he was feeling just like a real person would. It was a masterpiece of acting that is rarely appreciated, especially when he’s placed next to some of the other wonderful actors he shared the screen with. But slap him in the travesty of makeup that these Klingons are under and there’s no way he could deliver the same performance.

And, while not quite the disservice the other aspects of the Klingon rework present, the costume and starship designs are also horrid. None of the Klingon ships look like Klingon battlecruisers or birds of prey. These were stately, graceful ships who’s designs were still eminently practical, meeting all the needs of warships. In Discovery we get generic space musclecars in Klingon green. Klingon clothes were sleek and distinctive, iconic even, and again practical as melee armor. In Discovery, they wear gaudy tin cans that restrict movement, look like they’d snag on just about anything and provide no defensive properties whatsoever. Also, the wonderful, if impractical, silhouette of the bat’leth is gone. And though there is a potential mek’leth sighting it’s been reduced to an overly elaborate, spikey thing that doesn’t really fit the traditional Klingon aesthetic.

And that’s just what we’ve seen in two episodes. How likely are other beloved parts of the franchise to be represented well?

The icing on the cake is how badly Discovery is shot. I’m not a camerawork guru, I don’t geek out over framing or other camera techniques like some people do – although I do know good camera work when I see it and like it for what it is – but the weird Dutch angles in the cinematography and the overuse of lens flares just ruin a lot of the scenes in this show. They serve no purpose and feel confusing or pretentious or both. With the exception of the rare cases, like the unaligned ships in space I mentioned before, it’s just distracting. Worse, everything is dark. They know how to make electric lights in the 23rd century, CBS. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, they all had well lit ships. Would it kill you to pay the electric bill for a few more set lights? Or were you just trying to hide the fact that your ship interior design is pretty lackluster?

The dialog is tolerable and the acting is of similar quality. But it’s not enough to make the show interesting even if you look at it as a stand alone TV show with no connection to any franchise. It’s painfully clear, from the lack of details in the ship’s interior to the lack of meaningful characterization of anyone outside of the captain and a single forced scene with a random bridge officer in the second episode, that this whole setup exists in service of Mike the Girl, the only person who matters on the whole ship. To drive that point home, they’re all dead except for Mike and the ship is gone by the end of the second episode. It’s grossly exploitative and kills pretty much any stakes the show could hope to build now by making it so obvious that Mikey is the only one that matters.

Star Trek is a great franchise with a lot of cultural cachet and a history of poking at social controversy from the cover of its scifi framework. The creators knew this, and clearly wanted to borrow some of that history to lend power to their own points. Unfortunately they blunted any points the show could have made by ignoring the format and history of Star Trek that made it so effective to start with and even failing to craft a show that might be interesting in spite of that. Yes, their hostility to the fans who love the franchise is annoying but it’s not what doomed the show. That would be the apathy towards Star Trek of CBS and the showrunners.

The cultural force of Star Trek has been languishing for a while. The J.J. Abrams movies tried to revive some of it but that turned out to be more of a Star Wars parody in Star Trek clothing, with little of the panache or insightfulness of the original’s legacy. But there is one other take on that legacy ongoing. Yes, Seth Macfarlane. Next week, we’re coming for you.

Star Wars and the Metanarrative

You can’t really discuss metanarratives these days without talking about George Lucas. Over the last two weeks I’ve talked about how ignoring the importance of a metanarrative can cripple a franchise over time and how putting a solid metanarrative (or better yet, two or three) at the center of a franchise can result in a fresh, invigorating take on a seemingly worn out genre. But metanarratives are not all sweetness a light. It’s possible to become too invested in them and Star Wars is the perfect example. Most people see this, to a certain extent, when discussing things like “ring theory”, the idea that certain scenes and plot points occur at similar times in the classic and prequel trilogies, and in the recent revival The Force Awakens. I would propose that, even from the original trilogy, the franchise shows signs of being mired down by Lucas’ obsession with the Hero’s Journey.

Now it has been, and continues to be, my premise that metanarratives in and of themselves are not bad. But, just as The Simpsons threw out the prevailing metanarrative and missed how it set up one of its own, Star Wars introduced a metanarrative and never did anything beyond the bare basics with it.

The Star Wars interpretation of the hero’s journey is pretty standard: introduce menace, introduce main character, have main character leave home to do something simple, get caught up with mentor figure in the midst of some kind of trouble, learn of the Force to varying degrees, face struggle and ultimately triumph.

There were slight variations on this theme, some of which are truly excellent. The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in A New Hope are suitably emotional and impactful as an inciting incident. We knew enough about both characters to feel their mutual affection for Luke and their death was as senseless and tragic as you’d expect at the hands of an evil empire. The Degobah Cave sequence in Empire Strikes Back shows the fears Luke has about himself in a memorable fashion, making it one of only two worthwhile Degobah sequences. (The other is the introduction of Yoda.) The chase through Coruscant in Attack of the Clones is pretty fun and introduces a kind of buddy cop dynamic to the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship that could have been the heart of a better movie. The Order 66 sequence in Revenge of the Sith is a horrific twist on the main character’s moment of triumph and, contrary to what many think, Anakin murdering the younglings is the perfect capstone on his descent into evil. Introducing Han Solo and, later, Luke Skywalker as the mentor figures of The Force Awakens is leveraging the franchise mythos for all it’s worth.

The core problem with Star Wars is that the story never really changes. It’s more like playing a game of mad libs. In the very broad sense plot elements could be substituted for one another at random and smoothed into a coherent narrative with little trouble. Imagine if the plot to Star Wars 3 1/4th was that Luke Skywalker hopped a ship to Jaku with Yoda after the Clone Army raided Hoth and blew up his bar. Yoda convinced him to join the Rebel Alliance and help BB-8 hijack the Millennium Falcon and smuggle it to Coruscant where they could use the plans onboard to ambush and destroy the new Super Star Destroyer. On the way Luke rescue Qui-Gon Jin, ace pilot, and his starfighter squadron from a prison camp and scrapes together ships for them to fly and the agree to help him in his ambush. Qui-Gon’s second in command, Lieutenant Amidala, is a former Jedi padawan and teaches Luke the basics of the Force, which enable Luke to fly the Falcon through the Star Destroyer’s defenses and ensure its demise.

Just like that, you have a Star Wars story. It meets all the requirements. It has some potential for fun and action. And it’s almost beat for beat what all the other Star Wars stories have been.

Like I said when talking about The Simpsons – there’s nothing wrong with a serviceable metanarrative. But when it’s the only one at work that leaves a lot of room for other kinds of stories, other metanarratives, to move in and set up shop as your metanarrative gets old, stale and self referential. It happened with The Simpsons. Will it happen to Star Wars?

Well, that’s a harder question to answer. Rogue One has already kind of broken the mold, telling a different kind of story with very different beats but sticking to the mythos and style of Star Wars (for the most part). Unfortunately, for numerous reason all of which we may never know, Rogue One was not very good as a story. At the same time it as such a radical departure from most of what Star Wars had offered until that point many longtime fans of the franchise still loved it. There’s a lot of room for Star Wars to expand on its current core metanarrative, as Rogue One showed. But if the “core” films continue to beat the same drum then the moderately positive reception The Force Awakens received is likely to die out quickly and leave the franchise much where it was after Revenge of the Sith: under a bit of a cloud as hard core fans dream of the days when it was fresh and exciting. Regardless of which way it goes, the lesson is the same: Pay attention to what you’re doing and be sure to switch it up from time to time.

My Hero Academia and Building Metanarratives

Last week we talked a bit about metanarratives the way not being aware of them can lead to a death spiral in a particularly long running work of fiction over time. The same can happen in a broader genre if no one is paying attention to metanarratives. Something of the sort has happened amongst superheroes in the last few years, both in comics and in movies. If you’re interested in tracing the spiral in comics, at least in a very generalized, scattershot kind of way, I recommend the excellent YouTuber Diversity and Comics. In movies the metanarrative is pretty simple, usually revolving around some kind of rebirthing arc.

The hero starts out either normal or somehow denied his heroic aspect by outside pressures, undergoes a transformation that cuts him off from his old life and grants him great power, finds some way to use said power for the greater good and eventually discovers that some part of his old life is now cut off from him by his power or the circumstances it forces on him. These story arcs are typically introspective, the hero’s transformation frequently being as much an epiphany about him or herself, and lead to deeper, richer characters. The problem is, by examining the same portion of the hero’s story over and over again, the industry is running out of possible permutations of variables to use and the arc doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the kind of conflict superheroes do best – the kind where they clash with supervillains.

My Hero Academia does do the occasional introspective arc where the hero, Deku, contemplates himself, his abilities and how to better use them. It’s standard issue stuff in the “shonen” or adolescent boy’s comic books. But there are two other kinds of narratives the series does that build on major shonen metanarratives by fusing them with similar metanarratives in the superhero genre. These are the “paragon” metanarrative and the “antithesis” metanarrative.

Paragons are people who embody certain traits particularly well, the term is typically used in reference to good or noble traits although one could also be a paragon of ruthlessness or cruelty. In superhero comics the most notable paragons are Captain America and Superman, people who’s strong moral fiber and dedication to noble ideas challenge those around them to likewise dedicate themselves to higher callings. Paragons in superhero tales are almost always moral paragons, leading by example and encouraging responsible and courageous living in everyone they meet. Many stories from the long history of comics’ top two paragons embody this metanarrative but the greatest of these is found in All-Star Superman #10, when Superman, slowly dying from a fatal poisoning, pauses in his mad rush to banish as much evil in the world as possible to talk a suicidal girl away from the edge of a building. It’s an unforgettable moment in a great story overall.

In shonen, paragons embody a much broader set of traits, usually perseverance, dedication, passion for a skill or calling, general lust for life, loyalty to friends and family, or some mix of those traits. Oga Tatsumi, protagonist of Beelzebub, is a perfect example of this kind of paragon. He’s a delinquent who gets into fights but he has grit, values people he calls allies and has no respect for illegitimate authority but plenty of respect for people who try to stand on their own two feet. People who know Oga gain self-reliance, self-respect and confidence from his example, even though he himself is rarely a very good person.

The protagonist of My Hero Academia, Izuku Midoriya, codename Deku, is a paragon for heroes. He’s not very special in the world he lives in, beyond the fact that not having a superpower basically counts as being handicapped. What he does have is a heroic instinct. When he sees someone in trouble he responds without thinking, moving to help them in whatever way he can. The first time the audience sees this is in the first chapter of the story, Izuku Midoriya: Origin. The way Deku’s behavior influences his peers is highlighted in two other chapters, suitably named Katsuki Bakugo: Origin and Shouto Todoroki: Origin.

In both cases the characters in question are influenced by Deku’s impulse to help them. Bakugo’s story is told in flashback as a young Bakugo falls from a bridge and Deku rushes to help him. This seemingly simple happenstance leaves his arrogance and confidence are shaken when a totally normal kid takes actions more reminiscent of their mutual idol, All Might, than anything Katsuki has done. Unsurprisingly this early event left Bakugo with a strong sense of rivalry towards Deku and a surprisingly pure-hearted sense of a hero’s duty. Even if it is a duty Bakugo is terribly unsuited for, emotionally speaking.

For Todoroki, Deku’s help takes the form of helping his schoolmate make peace with the abusive legacy of his family by fully embracing his superpowers. As the son of an established and horrifically ambitious “hero” called Endeavor, Todoroki has set himself the goal of being a top pro without ever using the powers he inherited from his dad, only those from his mom. With Deku’s help Todoroki makes peace with his origins and becomes a better, more balanced person. Both of these events make those influence by Deku better suited to be pro heroes – in fact, it may be the event that makes them true heroes, hence it being called their origin. Bakugo’s story meets the superhero comic definition of paragon to a T, Todoroki’s, as it takes place during a school sparing competition, hits all the highlights of shonen paragons.

By the same token the “antithesis” metanarrative is part and parcel of both superhero books and shonen manga.  The clearest example in comics is probably Captain America and Red Skull, both supersoldiers for their sides but with totally different ideals and methods that draw them into constant conflict to emphasize the differences.

In manga and anime you need look no further than Vash the Stampede and Legato Bluesummers to see completely opposite ideologies playing out in direct contrast.

Like those two great heroes before him, Deku faces a villain who his exact opposite. Shiragaki Tomura, the nominal head of the League of Villains, is not an all-powerful villain that can dominate Deku at every step with brilliant plans. Instead he’s also a teenager, maybe a year or two older, and still very much learning the ropes just as Deku is. As Deku’s experience as a hero grows, so does Shiragaki’s understanding of how to manage his personnel and his available supply of minions. As Deku’s resolve and compassion grows, so does Shiragaki’s malice and antipathy towards society. By occasionally bringing these two together we seen exponential changes in each character take place and get great moments of heroism to boot.

These kinds of metanarratives are missing from most American comics franchises these days, typically set aside as juvenile or simplistic. But, to be perfectly frank, without these metanarratives Deku’s story would have gotten stale a long time ago and no fresh take on the genre – either superhero or shonen – would have come about.

As we discussed last week, metanarratives are not inherently bad. By consciously examining them and planning a story around them, as Kohei Horikoshi clearly did with My Hero Academia, you can build very clear and compelling plots to hang great characters and ideas on. Study stories like Horikoshi’s for ideas, yes, but study their structure as well. You might be able to bang out a great story or two if you plunge in without a thought towards metanarratives, but if you try to sustain those stories then they’ll quickly become Simpsons-esque narratives caught in their own ideas with nowhere to go. Like any good building, a story with a solid blueprint will last longer than one without.

Postmodernism, Metanarratives and The Simpsons

A while back, when I wrote about creativity, I made a passing mention to postmodernism, a philosophy that had, and still has, a huge impact on the cultural landscape of the last fifty years or so. I thought it might be a good idea, at some point, to put out a few words on what postmodernism is, how it’s shaped culture and what seems to be happening to it today. Since it is such a big part of our media today understanding exactly what it is and what it’s doing, and how we can take advantage of it to make our own stories better.

Let’s start with the basics. Postmodernism is a philosophy that specializes in breaking down and analyzing metanarratives. What is a metanarrative? In short, Joseph Campbell.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the magnum opus of a writer and mythologist named Joseph Campbell and in it he describes the narrative arc of the typical mythological hero and what that narrative arc means symbolically. This foundational narrative arc, the hero myth, is a basic metanarrative. I’m not planning on running through how the hero myth works in general, that’s outside the scope of our discussion (but more on it in a few weeks). What’s important is that this metanarrative embodies a certain idea, namely that going out of what’s familiar, struggling and overcoming, then returning to make your home a better place is an admirable way of life, something that people – and in it’s original codification, men in particular – should aspire to do.

The catch to postmodernism is that it doesn’t stop with breaking down metanarratives. Another component of postmodernism is that it interprets them as deliberately benefiting those that tell them at the expense of others and then tries to dismiss them using irony, satire or other methods that trivialize them. In the case of the hero myth postmodernism would likely characterize it as an attempt to prop up some kind of masculine hegemony by idealizing the man who goes out and overcomes obstacles as the heroes of society.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was common for heavily plot driven TV shows to introduce some kind of conspiracy theory that sought to spin cover stories for events and hide their true meaning from the public. The X-Files and Heroes both did this, for example, as did The Golden Compass in YA literature. These are classic postmodern devices. The people who set up these conspiracies hide the truth from the rest of the world so they can manipulate the public to their advantage.

While this idea that everyone is using you is one of the biggest appeals of postmodernism; stories where that’s the basic premise quickly boil down to a trite “be yourself” and end with the protagonist leaving whatever group he conformed with before and quickly conforming to whatever group he joins up with. Hardly the stuff of greatness. Instead, we must look someplace surprising for the greatest triumph of postmodern media.

We need to take a few minutes to discuss The Simpsons.

I’m not an expert on this show. I’ve watched maybe two full episodes and caught parts of others. Much of what I’m going to say is lacking in nuance. But I think I’ve got the core of the idea and it does seem to carry a lot of postmodernism in it.

The late 1980s and 1990s featured a lot of really wholesome sitcoms with a narrow focus on single families and the things that happened to them. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House and Home Improvement were all examples of this basic mold: Reasonably well off family, educated and caring father present in the home, loving mother struggling to find a balance among all the things pulling her home in different directions, kids about average in school and dipping in and out of trouble as the plot demands. The metanarrative says that these families were the kinds of people you might know or even want to be like and ultimately, while it might not always be pleasant, it was more good than bad and you could make it work if you tried. The Simpsons… didn’t try.

Homer is stupid and uninvested in his family… until it looks like they might fall apart, then he puts in just enough effort to maintain the status quo. Marge keeps the family above water by being the voice of morality but said morality is never based on anything stronger than Marge herself. When she has breakdowns or is otherwise absent her regulating effect on the family vanishes. Bart rebels against authority but never learns or accomplishes anything by it. Lisa overachives but never finds satisfaction through it. The Simpsons family is the perfect rejection of the family sitcom metanarrative – watching The Simpsons is funny (arguably, I don’t find it laugh out loud funny and for me that’s the litmus test) but it’s not anything people really want to emulate. Or even have around them in real life. Rather than pushing postimodernism The Simpsons just is postmodern.

A lot of people loved The Simpsons in the early days of the show. Unfortunately almost everyone agrees that it has now “jumped the shark” or lost the spark that made it what it was. How this happened is interesting, as it’s a case study in why postmodernism doesn’t work as a way of life or creativity, even if what it does can be useful.

The Simpsons was a classic case of postmodernism. It deconstructed the prevailing metanarrative of happy, functional families in funny situations and gave us a new, fresh take on a dysfunctional but (debateably) funny family that was funny partly because of how it contradicted the prevailing metanarrative. After five or six years the entertainment landscape shifted and The Simpsons began to loose relevance. More shows were mimicking the way The Simpsons lampooned the old media landscape and the founding writers were beginning to run out of ideas to satirize the old sitcom formula with. Ultimately Family Guy would come along in 1999 and satirize The Simpsons by taking their format and stuffing it full off pop culture references and painfully drawn out gags that went nowhere to poke fun at the overly complicated and often absurdist gags The Simpsons relied on. The Simpsons had gone from deconstructing the metanarrative to being the metanarrative and new shows were deconstructing it in turn.

The Simpsons was breaking down before the first epsidoe of Family Guy. The inherent weaknesses of postmodernism came to full force in an episode of the eigth season called “The Principal and the Pauper”, in which the principle of the local elementary school, a well established character, had all his backstory thrown out the window when it was revealed the real principal had died in the Vietnam war and his identity was stolen by an army buddy. This is classic postmodernism – what you think is true is a façade manipulated by someone else for their own convenience and must be broken down so you can put your own façade in place. This not only happened with the Principal’s character but the show itself – by this point the original writing team was gone and new writers were asserting their own vision for the show with no regard to what others had done before.

Eventually Family Guy would eat The Simpsons alive, overtaking that show in the ratings and building a new formula that The Simpsons would mimick until the two shows inevitably crossed over because they had become indistinguishable from one another.

Postmodernism does something very useful for a writer. It teaches you how to break down the elements of a story and really understand what they are doing. But it also teaches you to view these story elements and their thematic import as inherently suspicious. Once idetified and broken down metanarratives must be replaced because they can only come to exist because those that created them were seeking to bend them to their own advantage. But a study of postmodern storytelling shows the fallacy in that thought – postmodernists build metanarratives of their own, as often as not without meaning to do so. This leads to a wild orgy of deconstruction and reconstruction that often winds up chasing its own tail until the stories become indistinguishable from one antoher and, very frequently, lacking nuance, depth or anything interesting at all, really.

We see this in the lifecycle of The Simpsons and how it intersected with other shows like Family Guy. We see it in the incredible slump of Marvel Comics as its books have leaned more and more on postmodern, deconstructionist characters and storytelling. We see it to a lesser extent in modern art and music, where rules of pleasing visuals and sounds are largely rebuilt over and over again instead of carefully passed on to the next generation.

The sitcoms of the 80s, while capable of great entertainment, were stuck in a rut and The Simpsons attempting to break out of that mold was a worthy goal. By the same token deconstructing metanarratives has a lot of value for the author and it can help you make stories fresh and relevant again. But when you do, consider that, once you know how that metanarrative works, it might be worth keeping in place so you can make it work like a well oiled machine rather than replacing it.

Voltron: The Legendary Five Man Band

A month or so ago I wrote about how five man groups are pretty much the gold standard for good storytelling, presenting good options for different character dynamics without bringing too many characters for the audience to track to the table.

There’s a great example of this character dynamic in the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The basic premise of this shown is that five ancient and powerful alien war robots fall into the hands of human pilots, who must then wield them as separate entities and in the combined super robot known as Voltron. These five pilots are, of course, the core five man band of the show. The cast starts out by with a central cast that fits basic archetypes – Shiro, the soldier, Keith, the loner, Lance, the goofball, Hunk, the anxious, and Pidge, the nerd. These archetypes quickly flesh out as the character’s various motivations keep them moving at odds with one another.

The clearest example of this is Pidge, a girl who is passing herself as a boy in an effort to track down her father and brother, who went missing on a deep space mission. She’s hiding her identity because she’s already drawn too much bad attention from the authorities prying into classified files but, when she meets Shiro, who disappeared on the same mission and reappears under equally mysterious circumstances, she has to decide how much she trusts him and the three others whisked away on the wild ride they’re undertaking. It’s a particularly cryptic balancing act to watch as we’re not aware Pidge is a girl at first.

Character dynamics are at the heart of Voltron, from the clashing personalities of Keith and Lance to the uncertain relationship between Allura, the alien princess who’s father built Voltron, and her human paladins. But these aren’t the only important character dynamics. In fact, arguably the most important character dynamic exists between Shiro, the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon, and the Black Lion, the war machine both men wielded in battle at one time. Zarkon seeks to reclaim the lion with single-minded zeal while Shiro is driven by conscience and a clear desire not to let down his current team like he fears he did his last. (Shiro has a touch of the amnesia.)

It’s not just the heroes who have good character dynamics. There are interesting faces and motives among the villains as well, including factions and traitors, double agents who give the two sides multiple points of contact and an interesting glimpse into how the two sides are similar and different. It’s this kind of character writing that makes the show so very compelling and, with the third season introducing a five man band on the villain’s side, we can only expect these dynamics to go deeper.

Last week I went on about how I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix lineup to be incredibly lackluster. Serviceable but not compelling. Oddly enough, Voltron, with a total running time comparable to the length of Daredevil alone, has managed to build more compelling villains and, as a direct result, more compelling heroes than the entire Marvel Netflix line.

Voltron doesn’t just have strong heroes with deep flaws, who bond with each other in interesting and meaningful ways. It has surprisingly deep villains in a struggle that makes it clear one side has a moral edge over the other without letting the villains become caricatures or jokes. While Zarkon can come off as a bit of a tantrum thrower his deep connection to the Black Lion and a fuller understanding of his history, as revealed in season three, actually makes his single mindedness a little clearer. If I have one worry about the future of the show it’s how the story seems to be casting Zarkon as a victim of crystallized evil, rather than a man who turned to evil of his own volition, seeking goals he thought were good. There’s elements of both in his story right now.

C.S. Lewis’ most lasting works of fiction were the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books that meant for children that people of all ages love reading over and over. Sometimes stories meant for children make the strongest impressions and one thing is sure – Voltron: Legendary Defender may be aimed at children but it’s making a really strong impression right now. Worth checking out if you have the time.

Marvel’s Defenders and Making Peace

So I watched Marvel’s The Defenders a few weeks back. Based on what I saw I’ve had to make peace with a simple fact. Marvel’s Netflix TV shows are not really intended for me.

There’s far too much politics, too much dickering over who will take what piece of what pie, too much general pettiness among most of those involved. I realize that grounding your characters in real life is part of what makes them relateable and enjoyable for a lot of people. But the fact is that, of the three Marvel Netflix shows I’ve watch parts of, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil, there’s a common thread. None of them live “normal” lives I can really understand. Daredevil is the closest but even there the only remotely human relationships he seems to have are between himself and his partners at the law firm. And possibly with his priest, although I’m not a Catholic so I can’t comment there.

Worse, none of the shows have compelling villains to drive the heroes into a corner. Madame Gao in Iron Fist comes closest, and I understand she’s a player in later Daredevil episodes, but I just can’t get past the petty, self absorbed, two bit scheming of Kingpin, Diamondback and the Meechums. They all just whine and throw tantrums like children.

The Defenders didn’t do much to change that impression. Alexandra is afraid of death. That’s an understandable but very basic motivation. Unfortunately they never did anything much to expand on her or the rest of the Hand. We know they claim to serve life itself but, beyond collecting “the substance” to prolong their own lives, we don’t get any sense of what that means. They want to go back to Kun Lund. Sure, no one likes getting kicked out of the cool kids club. It’s still a terribly adolescent drive and not one I can see carrying a person through the entire course of human history.

One thing the show does well, possibly the only thing, is show how each character is at a different phase of growing into their role as street level hero. Daredevil is dealing with the personal cost, Luke Cage the economic cost. Danny Rand is still in the first flush of optimism, Jessica Jones isn’t sure she’ll ever have any. The four tempering each other over the eight episode run is a major part of their character arcs.

That said, it’s pretty much all the arc there is. The plot is simplistic and – dare I say – comic book thin. There’s an attempt at a twist in the last few episodes that was about as lacking in clear motivation and impact as the rest of the villain’s shenanigans. I’m not going to go over why I think villains are important or what their shortcomings do to potentially good stories. Suffice it to say that I’ve found all of the Marvel villains outside of Loki and Kaecilius to be very flat and uninteresting foils for the Marvel heroes.

That’s not always a bad thing. Some stories are more about a person looking in, they may only call for an antagonist and not a true villain. But sooner or later superheroes call for true supervillains to square off against them and let us really see what they’re made of.

I’ve made peace with the fact that most Marvel vehicles are not interested in these kinds of struggles and more interested in exploring interpersonal dynamics between their core characters and throwing action scenes in at the end. That’s fine and good, there’s definitely a place for those kinds of stories. I really dig them when they’re a part of a larger franchise with other themes to explore. But that’s pretty much all Marvel’s done with it’s franchise. I can dig it… it’s just getting stale.

It might be time to move on to something else, Marvel. For the time being, I know I will be.