Franchise – Expectation vs. Vision

One of the biggest struggles between translating an existing media franchise into a new incarnation is balancing what the existing audience wants and what the creator hopes for. As you’ve probably guessed, I think of this tension as a spectrum of “expectation vs. vision” and sorting it out is pretty important. In fact, avoiding it is one of the reasons I frequently express my desire not to write in Hollywood or for comics companies when people ask me if it’s something I want to do. This week we’re going to dive into what this tension is and what happens when you go too far to one end or the other.

Simply put, expectations are what audiences want when they sit down to another episode with Dr. House, the CSI investigators or the officers of Star Fleet. Vision is where the creators want to go when they set out to write a story. When a franchise is new, say no more than two or three years old, all the cards are in the creator’s hands. The audience doesn’t have too many solid ideas about what’s going on in their story and tends to be forgiving of major changes to the format, direction of the story or role of characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a lot of shake-ups in the cast in the first couple of seasons, with Geordi and Worf moving up in the command structure, Tasha Yar departing and the ship’s doctor changing and then changing back. No one really minded those decisions. Similarly, although Monk having to transition from the title character’s assistant going from the saucy Sharona to the prim Natalie due to difficulties with Sharona’s actress, the show survived and thrived.

But once a franchise is older it can be harder to survive these changes. MASH did it a couple of times and many people even found the show better after the changes. But each time a change takes place it can be harder and harder to please fans – the incessant bickering over each change in The Doctor when Doctor Who brings in a new lead is testament to that. The fanbase has clearer and clearer expectations of what the direction and tone of the story should be, and are going to react worse and worse if they’re disappointed.

Creators naturally feel that, as the ones putting in all the money and effort to produce entertainment and as the ones with the large scale picture of what’s happening in the franchise, they should be free to go wherever they want with their media. There’s a lot of truth in that – they do have their hands on all the buttons, they’re taking all the risks, they’re free to go wherever they want. But the audience is free to go wherever they want as well and leaving what the audience wants is a dangerous proposition because if they don’t choose to go with you then as a creator you’re sunk.

I’ve already written extensively on how Star Trek managed this in its latest incarnation but it may not be the best example of what I’m talking about as Discovery had a lot of what its audience wanted replaced with other things they typically like as opposed to things they aren’t interested in. The darker, grittier scifi that Discovery sells is a kind of scifi many Trekkies will watch. They just don’t want it wearing the skin of their favorite franchise.

A better example is the way Marvel Comics transformed it’s entire line of comics over the last three or four years or so. Since about 2014 – editorially much earlier – Marvel began replacing its existing line-up of characters with all new characters bearing the same hero names as the old. At the same time the focus of Marvel stories shifted drastically from wild action-adventure stories with clearly defined heroes and villains to murky social commentaries where heroes fought heroes and villains watched on the sidelines snarking about how silly it is.

Now there’s a place for those kinds of stories and they serve a real purpose in our cultural landscape. But the catch is that the audience for the old Marvel Method and then All New Marvel have very small overlaps. Worse, the parts of the audience that don’t overlap tend to actively dislike each other. The result for Marvel has been long time fans abandoning Marvel’s offerings in droves while few new readers have materialized, that potential audience viewing Marvel comics as a poor fit for their tastes. The result has been Marvel sales plummeting and their long term rivals, DC Comics, dominating the Top Ten in sales week after week, with Marvel usually taking one or two places thanks to perennial fan favorite Spiderman.

In contrast DC, who started a new style of storytelling with their New 52 some six or seven years ago and abandoned it with their DC Rebirth event last year, has pretty much solved the storytelling problem. Superman and Batman are their old familiar selves and their flagship titles, Action and Detective Comics, are pushing up to their 1000th issue. But new takes on old characters are also strutting their stuff and winning over audiences. There will be a discussion of great stories like Super Sons and the truly staggering work that is Mr. Miracle at some point in the future but suffice it to say DC has managed to expand the kinds of stories it tells and the way it tells them while still appealing to their core audience.

There are two real problems with writing a franchise. One is believing the franchise can tell any kind of story and keep its audience. Franchises come with things about them baked into the crust. They were originally the vision of a handful of creators and that vision caught on with thousands or millions of people who loved the vision of those creators enough come back to it again and again. If you try and use that original vision as a way to draw attention to your own, different and unique, vision then you show that you don’t have confidence in your own vision and have to slip it into something with more cultural weight in order to have it succeed. This is going to be most obvious to the core fans who resonated most strongly with the original creator’s vision. Now you can build on existing visions to expand them but if you try and supplant them with whatever you find most appealing then don’t be surprised if the old audience turns on you and no one else is interested in the ideas you couldn’t make stand on their own.

The other is letting the franchise get stale. You can’t always be topping yourself. Either your franchise will go over the top and jump the shark or get stuck in a loop with any new story you tell stuck in the shadow of older, better loved stories that were much the same.

There’s no solid solution to this paradox. But it’s easy to tell when you’ve gone too far one way or the other. If your franchise hasn’t picked up a new landmark story in five years you’re not innovating enough. If huge parts of your fanbase rebel you’ve innovated too much. Learning to keep your finger on the pulse is part of learning to be a franchise writer.

The Art of the Unexpected – Humor and Writing

Humor is one of humanity’s unifying experiences. Nothing draws a group of people together like a good joke, laughing actually alters brain chemistry in ways that makes people more friendly, more enthusiastic and less stressed. Even people who are not particularly funny still tend to have one or two good jokes they can share with others to break the ice in new situations or just keep a conversation moving when it’s stalled. But original humor requires a great deal of intelligence and social awareness to pull off and, even then, it’s very subjective, so what leaves one audience in stitches will leave another bored and restless. Any stand-up comedian can attest to this.

Most writers try to have some humor in their works. Getting that humor to land can be very difficult for all the reasons above but when it does the benefits it provides in getting and keeping your audience is immeasurable. Humor isn’t a formula or a set of tricks but instead a fresh perspective combined with penetrating understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular. The two basic keys to good humor tend to be honesty and surprise. The first, honesty, is very simple. You cannot get a laugh if it’s not founded on some truth of the world that your audience recognizes. There’s a lot of nuance to that, cultures and limited perceptions playing a huge part in it, but that’s the core of it.

The harder part is being unexpected. We laugh because our expectations have been violated but not badly violated, or violated in a way that is very harmful. People in stressful situations often say that they laugh because the only other option is to cry, a testament to the fact that the biggest difference between humor and trauma is how deeply the wound cuts. Another way to look at it is the difference between being tickled and rubbed with sandpaper – one causes laughter, another tears.

Unsurprisingly, this means that a failed joke often causes some kind of emotional distress. Anger, sadness and general discomfort are the outcomes of a failed joke, which means using humor in your writing carries a great deal of risk with it. More than just breaking immersion, a bad joke can actually turn audiences against your story if it really rubs them the wrong way. It’s true that you can chalk this up to part of the audience being thin skinned or overly stodgy. But at the same time, it could be that your use of humor didn’t suit the story or audience you were trying to find. These kinds of judgement calls ultimately rest in the hand of the author but, as always, are also things you must be aware of in order to make those calls effectively.

There are three basic ways to violate expectations for humorists. The first is to cross societal bounds, the second to set up non sequiturs, the third is to construct running gags.

Crossing societal bounds is touchy stuff, the kind of humor most likely to cause offense and, naturally, the funniest when done right. The most famous example of this is probably George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV”, although the modern masters of the art are undoubtedly Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle. Beware strong language – Here’s a great example of Bill Burr explaining why there’s always a reason to hit a woman (but you shouldn’t).

So yeah. That kind of humor is potent, potentially destructive stuff. I’d say it’s for advanced users only but, honestly, it’s probably impossible to master that kind of biting social commentary any way other than going out and doing it. But, for the aspiring writer it might be wise to practice this kind of humor a great deal in less permanent venues before immortalizing it in writing. Test it on trusted friends first, then maybe writing groups and, if you have access and can speak in front of people, at comedy clubs. Get really good at judging this kind of thing and exactly where it’s funny for most people because once it’s out there in writing it’s never going away.

Of course, there are many much milder ways to play on societal expectations for humor. Consider the punchline of this gag from Girl Genius. The setup is when General Zog hears Dimo was listening at the door like a great big sneakypants and he says, “Dimo, I am shocked at this behavior!” And the payoff is when we realize he found it shocking because it was smart, not rude. Our understanding of shocking behavior is violated by the general’s. Puns are another great example of a very mild form of humor relying on social norms.

It’s important to note that this kind of humor can fail for reasons other than being offensive. Someone from a culture where listening at doors is normal and accepted, for example, might immediately conclude General Zog was shocked at Dimo’s display of social awareness in knowing when to listen at doors rather than the fact that he did it at all. Humor based on social conventions needs to be placed in a story that will appeal to an audience that will understand those social conventions or it won’t play.

The second kind of humor is the non sequitur. As the phrase implies, this is humor that violates our expectations simply because the punchline does not follow directly from the setup. All absurdist humor follows under this banner, as does a good bit of sketch comedy and improvisational comedy. Fish out of water humor is an interesting blend of non sequitur and societal norm humor as it revolves around people taking actions that make perfect sense to them but no sense to the audience (see Demolition Man’s three seashells gag), or taking actions that make sense to the audience but produce absurd results.

One of my favorite examples of a non sequitur gag is demonstrated in Dr. McNinja on this page and the next.

No explanation is ever given for what happened in that missing third of a page, if you’re wondering. Christopher Hastings is a master of non sequitur humor in addition to great plot based storytelling but cutting out a typical encounter in the middle of a typical adventure story and using that absence to remind us that the Doc is, in fact, a ninja is delightfully absurd. He violates both our expectation to see the Doc manage a cop quickly and easily and our expectation to learn something new about what’s going on at the same time and he does it so skillfully we don’t hold it against him. And we get to see Doc fight the NASAghasts that much faster.

Non sequiturs also have their weaknesses as humor devices. You have to present the audience with something surprising in order for it to really work and that gets harder to do every day. There’s a sequence in The Orville episode “About A Girl” where a Mexican standoff turns into a dance-off because one of the officers has been tinkering with the holodeck programs. It’s supposed to be funny but it flopped, first because Guardians of the Galaxy already attempted that gag and flubbed it but secondly, and more importantly, because going from Mexican standoff (an exotic and unusual situation) to dance off (not particularly exotic, and still less unusual than a Mexican standoff) is a poor non sequitur joke. The sequence of events started us someplace more in violation of our expectations than where we wound up, which is not funny.

Finally, there is the running gag.

It may seem strange to say that a thing that happens over and over again is a violation of our expectations. But the secret of a running gag is not that it is the same thing over and over again, but that we keep seeing the gag in places where it hasn’t shown up before and doesn’t make sense. The best examples tend to come from long running media or entertainment careers that have the time to really find the best use for these gags, things like the black cat in Trigun or the way Harpo Marx never speaks, in spite of take the roles of many people who would have to be excellent public speakers. Even Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc?” is a running gag of sorts. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found nearly infinite uses for self-sealing stem bolts, and the accompanying reverse-ratcheting routers. And the Nostalgia Critic’s relationship with the Bat Credit Card is the stuff of legend. But one of the greatest running gags of my childhood has to be the Noodle Incident from Calvin and Hobbes. The less said about that the better.

There tends to be a danger that running gags become overused. They can’t turn up constantly because then they stop being unexpected and funny. But if they’re forgotten completely or only mentioned once or twice then they can’t build up the force of a good running gag. Of course, repeating a gag that is naturally funny, as often happens on Who’s Line is it Anyway? helps make reusing it easier, but even these gags can wear out their welcome. The best part about running gags is that they’re easy to set up and bear little of the risk of other kinds of humor – basically, the only two risks are setting up a running gag that isn’t funny at all or running one to death so that your audience loses interest whenever it comes up instead of laughing. Of course, the opposite side of the less risky coin is that few running gags are exceptionally funny. Typically they just are. People like them but don’t love them.

Humor brings a lot to a work but it’s also important to know what kind of humor best suits what you’re writing. Running gags rarely fit commentaries, for example, while social humor is going to completely miss with younger audiences, who don’t get puns and don’t fully grasp the contexts that make other forms of social humor funny. Learning what humor goes best in what situation is just another part of sorting out how you’ll use it in your writing. Sorting it all out is half the fun – for you, if not your audience. But once it works the payoff will be more than worth it.

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.

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.