Avengers: Infinity War ***½

infin war

It was probably Lord of the Rings that started it all, by showing that planning or making more than one film at a time was not only possible, but could also make a shedload of cash.  Except we have gone a long way beyond just a trilogy, or eight Harry Potters.  The number of films setting up the world and characters of Infinity War would take a while to count.  The heroes of Earth and beyond have to come together and face the biggest threat to the Universe yet…

So far, Marvel’s record has been enviable: the films have never been less than fun, and most of them have been far better than one had a right to expect.  Imagine if, as a writer, you were told “Here are some already established characters.  Have them fight some bad guys, and possibly each other, for two hours or so.”  What a poisoned chalice that would be… but Avengers Assemble succeeded in almost all terms.

All the same, I reckoned that if any film was going to mess up, it would be this one.  If every major character in it got one minute of screen time, that would be half the running time gone!  Perhaps an exaggeration, but still…

I did find the film underwhelming, but not for the reasons I expected.  The multitude of characters are mostly well handled and prioritised.  No, what they finally messed up on was the fighting.  You may think that one cgi-heavy superhero fight looks much like another, but that isn’t so.  There are definitely such things as good and bad implausible slug-fests.  The same directors have previously been successful; they make sure there is some kind of narrative.  Eg Winter Soldier punches at Spiderman.  Spiderman catches the fist, there is a beat while we register the skinny kid is stronger than a cyborg assassin, then he exclaims, “Dude, you got a metal arm!  That’s awesome!”  All of which is good fun, and done slowly enough that I could register it happening.

But Infinity War…  a confused mass of shooting lights, blurs and explosions.  Someone is tied up on a ship and you think “Hold on, I don’t remember them getting captured, thought they were still wrecking New York!”  Maybe they accelerated the fights to shave some minutes off the running time.

In fairness, the film only falls short compared to the high standards set by the previous ones.  Objectively, there is much to recommend it, and some parts are daring.  The plot revolves around a Big Bad called Thanos (played by Josh Brolin) attempting to gain ultimate power.  Infinity War is in many ways his film, following the antihero’s quest.  Thanos has sensibly been doctored to have an expressive face.  He is at once utterly villainous, but also complicated and in some ways, even sympathetic.  His justification for what he does is topical and relevant, but not over-done.  He spends a lot of the film doing to the superheroes what they have spent their films doing to sundry villains; you suddenly get a sense that Earth is only a small planet at the mercy of a greater universe holding things much stronger than humanity.

His henchmen suffer a bit, though.  Mostly, they are unreal special effect creations only one of whom has any personality.  That said, I’d have no idea how to beef them up without making the film far too long.

The ending… not giving too much away to say there is one hell of a cliffhanger.  It will take a lot of finesse for them to get out of it (assuming they do).

Am I waiting for the next one?  Yes, but not with nearly as much anticipation as I did this one.

 

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Torture Inflation

Agony_BoothThere is a serious subject whose portrayal needs to be discussed: torture.  Unlike other violence or use of guns, there seems to have been relatively little debate around this except as regards the drama series 24 (where the very premise repeats a highly unlikely scenario).

I regret to say that genre fiction is one of the worst offenders, particularly with its fantastic scenarios.  James Bond is tortured for a year in Die another Day, and shrugs it off.  Dean is tortured for forty years in Hell in Supernatural (although this had a more thoughtful and complex treatment of the after-effects).  Angel is tortured for a couple of centuries in Buffy, comes back as a wordless animal, but then is fine after a course of Tai Chi.  In perhaps the worst example, Captain Jack is supposedly kept in continuous mortal agony for 3000 years in Torchwood, with no discernible change afterwards.

Some of the above examples seem just to be tossing out large numbers in search of effect, in quite a childish manner.  The genres allow going beyond what is humanly possible, many do so.  Of course they go far in other ways; Star Wars blew up a planet.  I felt no great outrage because the setting made it distant and not terribly real, and we do not have a weapon capable of blowing up a planet in our arsenals (yet).

Torture is different, though: unlike Death Stars, it is very real and it happens.  The US used torture after the Twin Towers, and Trump has said he wants to reintroduce it.  I think fiction is under an obligation not to cheapen or present it as being without consequence, just as with sexual violence.

There may be worse offenders; I have the suspicion that at least a couple of shows have used torture to blend in to sexual titillation.

The consequences of torture are also often, and offensively, wrong.  Either it seems that any hero worth their salt can shrug it off, or (as with Buffy) they simply turn insane/animalistic and often as not get cured completely later on.  The real effects are far more complex and insidious.  One of the most heart-rending thing I have read was an account of a torture survivor’s mental state in an Amnesty bulletin.  This may seem too difficult to portray in a genre show, but if so then they shouldn’t be having torture in the first place.  Let the prisoner get rescued before it happens.

Does torture work?  Common sense might say yes, but experience and analysis seems to say no.  [See wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effectiveness_of_torture_for_interrogation ]

Now the specific example which touched off this article and showed clear moral degeneration: Star Trek Discovery.

The Next Generation was a brilliant show in many ways.  One of its highlights was a thought-provoking treatment of torture influenced by 1984, the double episode Chain of Command.  It was thought provoking, responsible and damn fine drama.  Discussed further in this excellent article, which highlights another unfavourable contrast:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2009/05/there_are_four_lights.html

But Discovery… in a jaunt to the mirror universe, the evil empire routinely uses “Agoniser booths” where people are held in constant screaming torment.  A rebel not only willingly subjects himself to them so that he can escape when on the Emperor’s flagship (weak plot point!) but he releases his crew who have been held in them for a year… and they’re fine.  Not just fine, but fit, willing and able to mount a rebellion.

I have just found out what occasional bouts of coughing can do to a person physically, never mind continuous screaming for 365 days.  Then as for the psychology…

It’s a clear abandonment of the Star Trek code to provoke progressive attitudes.  Now one may think that art or entertainment should be under no obligation to teach morals, and that’s valid.  But they should not be undermining them with unrealism, either.

 

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A Christmas Anti-Carol

Christmas hits blared out of Carol’s car on the last leg of the journey home.  She opened the windows and sang along at the top of her lungs.  She hoped the other drivers could hear her over the roar of  demisters as they crawled along in the jam.  Some of them must have done, because they opened their windows and shouted approval back at her.  Well, she couldn’t hear but what else would they be saying?

The lights of her house welcomed her back, in fact she could see them lighting the underside of the clouds as she got near the estate.  People were out enjoying the snow, she couldn’t help splashing a few with slush as she drove the last few streets but it was all good fun.  There was so much still to do!

Santa’s sleigh flashed high on the roof.  She had pulled the first two bags of goodies from her car when she had her first wobble.  As she reached for the door, the knocker seemed to shimmer and change shape.  From the elf with the ring in its mouth she had Geoff install on the first of November, it seemed to become the face of her dear departed friend Janet from the Mum’s Christmas circle.  Poor dear, she had crashed her car last year on her way to a Boxing day sale.  She seemed to be shaking her head and mouthing things at her.

Carol stopped and shook her head.  She was just over-tired; so much to do, so little time!  Well, she could rest when the last board game was done and before the sales began.

‘Children!’ she called out.  ‘Only half an hour before you go out carol singing!  I want another snowman made before then!’

She sorted out the bags, and sat in the chair for a moment.  Just a moment, it wouldn’t matter if she allowed her eyes to close…

She woke with a start.  The house was still and dim, as if she was wearing dark glasses.  The lights outside were no longer blinking on and off.  She couldn’t hear the Christmas music.  Was she having some kind of fit?

‘Nooo…. Nooo….’ Janet was stumbling into the living room from the hall.  She was bent forward trying to haul the load behind her.  A huge bauble was tied to each ankle with a paper chain.  She was wrapped up and tangled in tinsel that trailed behind her in a great train loaded up with Christmas puddings, parcels, turkeys, mince pies and other paraphernalia.  Her arms and legs were swathed in crumpled wrapping and sellotape, and at least three cracker-crowns were around her brow and her neck.

‘Go away… go away… I’m hallucinating… there’s so much to do…’ called out Carol.

‘Stop and beware!’ groaned Janet.  ‘Take heed!  You must repent before it is too late!’

‘Don’t be silly Janet, I’m sorry you’re dead but I knew you would never want it to spoil Christmas!’ snapped Carol.

‘Christmas…. You don’t know the meaning of the word…’ Janet made waving motions at her with her hands.

‘Of course I do, I have never forgotten a present for anyone!  Ever!  I’m always jolly!’ screeched Carol.

‘I am the ghost of Christmas past… come with me…’  Janet made more waving motions and the whole house wobbled, then flowed away like paint.  Carol now found herself standing in the middle of a huge, cold barn.  And she was up to her ankles in bird-poo.  She wanted to scream and jump from foot to foot but she couldn’t because she was surrounded by turkeys, standing room only, from wall to wall of the massive space.

‘It smells in here!  Get me out!’ yelled Carol.

Janet had a turkey somehow perched on her back.  She managed to shuffle forward, towing a dozen of the grotesquely fat birds a couple of paces on her train.  ‘Are these looking forward to Christmas?’ she intoned hollowly.

‘You can’t have Christmas without cooking a turkey, you taught me that one, you used to say it all the time at work!’  Carol tried to stuff a hanky up each nostril.

‘Now I am paying the price…’ moaned Janet.

‘Alright, alright, next year it’ll be a free range bird!  Now can I go back, I need to get some potatoes scrubbed!’

‘This is just part one.’  Janet did the wavey thing with her hands again.  ‘Come into your past…’

Carol found herself in a small flat.  A gas fire glowed on the wall and an old woman huddled in a chair with a tartan rug over her knees.  A small child was running around the room pulling tinsel out of a bag and stringing it everywhere.

‘Oh, this is my nan!  How lovely!’  Carol clapped her hands.  ‘I decorated her flat!  Thank you Janet for showing me how I’ve always been Christmassy!’

‘Do you think she wanted her flat decorating, or do you think she wanted to talk and cuddle with her grand-daughter?’ asked Janet.

‘Is this a trick question?’

‘It was the first time she had seen someone for longer than five minutes all week.  Did you stop to talk to her?  Did she manage to speak more than half a dozen words to you on the visit?’

‘Well it needed decorating!’

‘How long do you think it took her to take it all down afterwards?  How long to hoover up every last stray strand?  She was very house-proud.’

‘Oh my God, is that why she died?  She had bad luck because she didn’t take them down in time?’ Carol clapped her hands to her mouth.

‘Not really.’  Janet gave her a withering look.  ‘Nobody’s going to blame you for what you did as a child.  The point is, you haven’t learned any better since then.’

‘Of course I have!  All the decorations are now up in good time, two months in fact!’

Carol started awake.  Everything was back to normal.  It was Christmas!  No time for silly little nightmares.  She pulled herself out of the chair.  Those potatoes weren’t going to peel themselves.  She double-checked the coloured time chart she had fixed to the wall.  T-minus twenty hours, get the veg under water.  But then the colours on the chart dimmed into shadows, and the music faded to silence.  Carol gave a “tsk” under her breath and approached the window to see if other houses still had power, but then she screamed because a bearded middle-eastern looking man in a robe was standing in the doorway.

‘Geoff!  There’s an Arab has broken into the house, call the police!’ she shrieked.

‘More Graeco-Turkish,’ said the man.  ‘I am Saint Nicholas.’

Despite her fear, Carol shrieked in laughter.  ‘You’re not Santa!  You’ve even had a broken nose!’ She pointed at his face.  ‘Where are the reindeer?’

‘You’re lucky I have the proverbial patience,’ said the man.  ‘I am here as the Ghost of Christmas Present.’

‘They’re all wrapped, I’ve been good!’ said Carol.  ‘You’re still not Santa.’

‘Never said I was,’ said the Saint.  ‘Come with me.’

‘Are you going to show me a homeless shelter or something?  Because I buy packs of cards from charities, I did an extra load this year, there are plenty of people to send them to!  And we went and helped decorate the local soup kitchen last week, make it nice and cheerful!’

‘Just upstairs.’  Nicholas beckoned Carol and she found herself floating after him.  She screamed and clutched at a tinsel rope but her hands went straight through it.

‘Never mind about the potatoes, no time is passing, you can get back to them later.  If you want to.’  Nicholas opened the door to her son Ryan’s room.

‘He’d better have written that note to Santa…’ began Carol, but then frowned.  Ryan seemed to have shoved his head under his pillow and be holding it tightly to him with both hands.

‘He has to take it out and breathe every minute or so,’ said Nicholas.

‘He hasn’t even got his lights on!’ wailed Carol, flicking intangible fingers at the switch.

‘You haven’t noticed?’ The Saint looked sad.  ‘Your son is shy and quiet, more so than normal.  All the sounds, the lights, the people, the demands on him… he is suffering.  In the few minutes you let him have to himself, he tries to find a tiny bit of comfort.  But he can still can’t block out all of your horrible music.’

‘Oh good grief you’re right!’ said Carol.  ‘I had no idea.  Let me get back and I’ll take him straight out singing.  Some good cheer and seeing all the lights will perk him right up!’

The Saint closed his eyes and took several slow, deep breaths.  ‘I rather think you need some quiet reflection yourself.’

You need to find some cheer!’ snapped Carol.  ‘All this being sour and Scroogelike, it’s not going to work, you hear?  It’s not going to spoil Christmas!’

Saint Nicholas pinched the bridge of his nose.  ‘Next!’ he yelled.

Carol found herself abruptly back in the kitchen.  The music blared and the lights flashed.  She wrote “get Ryan out of his room” on the planner and then frowned.  There must be something wrong with the power box, that was why things were going weird from time to time.  She bustled into the garage, got out the stepladder, and started climbing.  Why did Geoff stay at work so long every Christmas Eve?  This ought to be his job…

She reached for the box… there was a gigantic flash and then complete darkness.  She lay there for a while, then started humming some Christmas hits to keep cheerful.

There was a screech of metal and she found herself looking up at strip-lights.  She’d been in some kind of metal drawer.  Two faces in surgical masks bent over her.  ‘What have we here?’ asked one.

Carol tried to reply but found she couldn’t move.

‘Another death from the Incurably Manic unit,’ said the other mask.  ‘They have a whole ward full of Christmas Obsessives, apparently.  Only allowed a few baubles for one week a year, but there are always several deaths from over-excitement.’

‘So sad.’  The first one shook his head.  ‘Help me get her onto the table.’

‘Do we actually need an autopsy?’ said the woman.  ‘It’ll be thickened arteries from Christmas pudding abuse.  Always is.’

Carol tried to scream and move, but she couldn’t.  Then the two morgue attendants froze, and another figure appeared above her head.  It was shaped like a person but was entirely composed of toys, which made it quite bewildering to look at.  It had coloured balls for eyes, a toy car and truck for eyebrows, a hairbrush for a nose, and it spoke from the disconnected speaker of some talking widget.  ‘I am the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,’ it told her.

Carol found she could move again, and jumped off her stretcher scowling.  ‘Is this meant to put me off?’ she snarled.  ‘If this is true, which it isn’t because there’s no way my family would leave me in a looney bin, then I still died for something I love!’

The ghost shrugged shoulders made of a roller skate and a Ken doll.  ‘That is your business, I suppose.  We probably wouldn’t be doing this if it was just your fate.’

‘Thank you very much, now get me home.’  Carol shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

‘I’m made of toys that were played with once then thrown away, by the way.’

‘I don’t care.  What a rotten trick to play!  I’ve had enough!’

‘You’re used to a bit more than enough, by the sound of things.  But I’m another one with two things to show you.  Come with me.’  The ghost reached out a hand made of meccano and took Carol’s arm.  She screeched but then clung on as they fell through rushing darkness.

Their next stop was a platform cobbled together from rubbish; pieces of black plastic, wood and concrete wrapped up in ropes and blobs of glistening glue.  Light came from flames at the end of a pipe sticking up from below.  When Carol looked around she could just make out what seemed to be marshland, bubbling and foetid pools between hillocks of sick-looking vegetation.  The platform was reached by a bridge and beyond that seemed to be some kind of wretched shanty-town built on stilts above the swamp.

‘Where are we, in a sci-fi movie?’ asked Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shook his head, which rattled.  ‘This is Lapland, at Christmas time.  But a century into the future, the way it will be if you don’t mend your ways.’

‘No it isn’t.  There’s no snow and it stinks!  Where are the reindeer?’

The Ghost folded its arms (the outer one was made of Scalextric track) and nodded to the causeway, where a procession was approaching.  It was made up of grubby and thin people in dirty rags, although the leader had some kind of hooded robe made out of tarpaulin.  They were carrying a litter with a small sheeted form on it, bunched oddly at one end.

‘Brethren!’  The lead figure turned around as they reached the platform.  There was a grid of rusty iron in the centre, with more pipes sticking up underneath.  ‘We are gathered here today for the Midwinter Cursing.  Today, we raise our voices to damn the old generations whose sin led us to this.  For them, this was a time for their worst excesses.  They would gorge on more food than they needed, spew heat and poison into the air without a care, ship goods twice around the world and pile their tips high with rubbish!’

Angry roaring came from the crowd behind him.  Fists were shaken in the air.  ‘They can’t see us can they?’ whispered Carol.

‘But more than this,’ went on the hooded leader, ‘today we lay to rest the body of the last reindeer.  He languished in a zoo, cared for as well as they could by people who could barely feed themselves.  But his natural food was gone, and the air too hot.  To him, death must have been a blessing.  After all, how could a reindeer be happy when he has never seen snow?’

A chorus of moaning and groaning from the crowd.  The stretcher was brought forward and laid on the grid; antlers poling out from one end.  As the flames were lit underneath, a single tear escaped Carol’s eye.  ‘Rudolf…’ she whispered.

 

Geoff stopped the car and took a few deep breaths before he rounded the corner.  At first, he thought the house had vanished, leaving a hole between the glowing lights and windows of the neighbours.  Then he realised it was still there, but in darkness save for a single candle burning in the window.  Perhaps the electric was off?  Damn it…

He parked and let himself in.  It was quiet, and the only light came from the living room.  When he got to the door, he found a fire burning in the grate, and a few more scattered candles.  Sarah was reading a book by the light of an oil lamp.  Carol was on the sofa cuddled up with Ryan, who was snoring softly.

Geoff took off his shoes and sat down next to them.  ‘This is very nice, but it’s not quite what I was expecting,’ he said.  ‘Didn’t you have things planned?’

‘Bah!’ said Carol.  ‘Humbug!’

 

THE END

 

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Fifty Shades, a response

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Well have been through a few life things that shook me up, perhaps more on that later, but gonna start with a certain famous/infamous franchise.  No, I’m gonna start with a boast: won some money for an erotic story competition.  It was paid in Amazon vouchers but is my first real payment for any kind of writing unless you count some free subscriptions.  I am of course too shy to show it to anyone I know, or to put it on any future résumé as verification would mean they could read it.  But it’s there.

But on to Fifty Shades: I saw the film.  I didn’t really feel the need to read the book, just wanted to get the idea.

First off, good for the author!  Dashing off a novel and making a tonne of cash without artistic pretension, EL James is living the dream and I don’t want to join in any literary snobbery about how well the book may or may not be written.

The film itself… I’m not reviewing it as such.  My main take is that it is a woman’s fantasy film.  The protagonist meets an extremely rich and handsome ethical businessman who is an expert pilot and piano-player.  He falls in love with her because she asks a couple of perceptive and challenging questions in an interview.  He then pursues her in a way that might be creepy and scary in real life.  He turns out to be a dominant sado-masochist, fulfilling the common fantasy (for all sexes) of surrendering control and abdicating decision-making.  I understand the latter part, but I wasn’t able to relate to the rest as it was too gender-specific.  In one of my common tropes, I wondered how it would work if the genders of the protagonists were reversed: could you have a young, beautiful business lady deciding to pluck an inexperienced male graduate student into her world, then shower him with treats and sex?  I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t, or at least be difficult to write (a challenge?)  Gender roles and expectations are too entrenched, maybe even rooted into biology…

Then comes the clever part: the introduction of genuine conflict.  The man is emotionally closed off; can Anastasia save him and enable him to love and be close to her at least some of the time?  The film hints at childhood traumas that had made him this way but never spells them out.  I expect some in the community objected to this equating of kink with pathology, but it might not be that simple.  For example, a friend who does cosplay says that many of the people who do it were bullied, or have problems with shyness; they find adopting a mask and another persona to be liberating.  So there may be a pathology behind the behaviour, but the behaviour itself is not pathological; in fact it may be helpful, almost a kind of drama therapy.

I’ve heard Fifty Shades criticised for not being an accurate portrayal of BDSM relationships.  Not that I know a great deal there, but it seemed pretty hot on issues of informed and withdrawable consent, use of safe words and so on.  As for the rest… is it being edgy in some ways?  Christian Grey was seduced at fifteen by an older woman who used him as a sub for six years, and he initially offers this as an explanation of him being the way he is.  As Anastasia says at one point, this is child abuse.  Then, there is no getting away from the fact that Anastasia is young and inexperienced in comparison to Christian.  She may be an adult, but we cannot pretend that her head isn’t turned and her judgment clouded.  As mentioned, his pursuit of her and later desire to control her (even with consent) could be creepy and dangerous if it happened for real.

However this is all, to some extent, the point of the film.  In a BDSM scenario, the fantasy of coercion and lack of responsibility in someone’s head may be very different to the scrupulously planned and safe reality.  Fifty Shades is a blend of that fantasy with elements of realism.  You suspend some disbelief going in and shouldn’t imagine it’s real any more than a Bond film.

In any case, the book and film have done enormous business and appealed to an awful lot of people.  So worth looking at for that reason, even if you interrogate it a bit afterwards.  Not that I would ever do a thing like that….

 

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Alien Covenant: *** The watched pot keeps boiling

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Manage your expectations.  Go in with low ones and you will enjoy more.

The first Alien movie was, I am told, innovative for being a Haunted House movie in space with a far-above-average monster.  Covenant is then exactly what it is: the fifth (seventh, inclusing spin-offs) sequel where everyone knows the score, following horror movie tropes and remixing previous plots.  The dominant trope is “ensemble characters go into the forest and get killed off, usually while you’re screaming at them not to be so stupid,” plus something I’ll have in the mild spoilers section.

As my friend remarked early on, “this lot are more hopeless than the last ones!”  Sure enough, they refuse to do anything like actually look at the planet before they land there.  But the plot is also increasingly nonsensical and SF-silly, with robots growing hair and nobody remarking on non-human civilisations.  Ridley Scott is never less than a good director, but he simply cannot tell a good script from a bad one.

Oddly, I found myself missing some of the philosophical pretension from the previous installment.  But there was one thing that really annoyed me: the captain of the colony ship declaring that people were biased against him for being a man of faith.  Things must have changed in the future; atheists are one of the few groups considered utterly unelectable to President or Prime Minister.  Yet another advantaged majority protrays itself as threatened and persecuted.

Mild/early Spoilers:

The real innovation of the film is its central badness being a villain rather than the monsters.  And the villain is indeed superb in many ways, although much of the villainy comes from the repeated times he is spared, helped or trusted with insufficient reason.  I can’t deny this built up a wonderful head of hatred for him, but it also felt unsatisfying in some ways.

Covenant also pulls an Alien3 in that you find all but one of the plucky survivors from the previous film have died off-camera in the interval.  Another thing that feels a bit lazy.

My favourite film of the franchise remains, of course, Aliens.  It was smart, pacey, gritty,  and innovative in having an early female action heroine with a mother/daughter love interest (I have a theory that it may be the most influential feminist film of all time, in that lots of young men with little interest in gender politics will have cheered Sigourney Weaver leading a group of men and then kicking ass with a big gun).  The sequel was just as good as the original, in fact better in my book.  Influences from both the two films have run through all subsequent sequels.  I do find myself wishing that James Cameron had come back rather than Ridley Scott…. but then, as with Terminator, he knows when it’s time to bow out of a franchise.

So, Convenant is a good ol’ potboiler but nothing great.

AND, for those of you who would like my narrative response to Promethues, read “Epimetheus” on this website! https://paladinofidleness.wordpress.com/stories/rewrite/epimetheus/

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Time Travel Pitfalls Part 3: Forget all the rules if you’ve got character

The thing was, I loved the animated film of the Flashpoint Paradox which I have just been slagging off.  Despite my problems with the main plot, it was great to see very different versions of well-known characters in dystopian situations.  I was well into the stakes at the end, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was all stopped from happening at all.

Which is kind of the whole point.  Time travel, unless you have something genuinely original to do with it, is just a tool.  It is a plot device to make conflict, character, and colour happen in your sci-fi.

Put the drama first.  Time travel is the means, not the end.  Any resolution using time travel has to be involved with the human factor (eg Looper; the end is rooted in character development, and time paradox is just what he uses to make it happen).

It’s like a laser gun.  Simply having a story that says “wow, this guy uses a laser gun!” is going to need more to actually make it worthwhile, maybe even if you are the first person ever to write about one.  Maybe the story focuses on trying on to build the gun in time to stop the monster, or on the implications of its invention.  Maybe someone is resisting using the weapon, but finally bends and shoots the monster in the last act.  Perhaps there were hints of mystery about a character, and them suddenly producing a laser is a big reveal that invites further questions.  But the laser itself is not the only point of interest.

A story needing interest beyond the gadgets is hardly a revelation; but time travel is such a McGuffin that it offers some specific pitfalls.

 

Thanks to: Terry, Sandy, John, and the rest of the writing group

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The Pitfalls of Writing Time Travel, Part 2

2) Don’t get bogged down in the rules

The finest films to feature time travel avoid detail about how it works.  Take Terminator: when Kyle Reese is asked about the time machine, he snaps “I didn’t build the thing!”

You need some rules, sure.  You need to keep it so that death means something and the adventures have a purpose.  But don’t get too hung up on them, because…

…I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I have read and watched an awful lot of fictional time travel, including a role-playing game system that tried very hard to nail down workable and watertight rules.  I am an allegedly smart guy with a physics degree, and I have come to the conclusion that an entirely self-consistent system of time travel is an impossibility—at least, not without making a total nonsense about our ideas of narrative, identity and free will (the “multiple universe” interpretation).  I smacked my forehead when I realised this because, duh, violating causality is the very definition of time travel.

Come up with something that works for your story, stick to it but don’t get too fancy or convoluted because if you do, it’s going to break down.

A friend has pointed out something else: whereas most sci-fi hardware has a starting point for your imagination, time travel does not.  A space ship can be inspired by a sea ship or an aircraft; a laser gun is a gun that shoots a beam instead of bullets; a robot can be extrapolated from existing machinery.  But a machine that moves you through the fourth dimension has no real-world ancestor.  Therefore it can be as original, or as bizarre and anachronistic, as you want.  Writers have played with this; from a phone in a microwave through hot tubs and, of course, the blue Police Box!

 

2b) Critics: you might not be as smart as you think you are

[Terminator 1-2 spoilers]

I have been pretty stupid myself, on occasion.  I have done things like clicking on links for “10 of the worst movie plot holes….” although at least I usually remember to wipe my tracking cookies afterwards.

If I had a pound for every time someone has said something like “Ah, but John Connor could not have existed to send his father back in time to become his father!” then I could afford a pretty nice meal.  (This sort of thing is called a “bootstrap future” by the way, after the proverbial boy who pulls himself out of the swamp by tugging on his own boot straps).  In Terminator, the paradox was used correctly.  It added interest and poignancy, but was not the main point or drama of the ending.

It’s time travel.  It’s inconsistent by definition, and who knows how it would work if it was real?  Accept it if you want to enjoy the film, but don’t accept half of it then moan about the other half.  Unless you’re me.

 

2c) Put a bit of effort in what rules you do have, don’t let them be an Eleventh Commandment

[“The Flash” in various media spoilers]

So, The Flash yields to the temptation to go back in time and save his mother’s life.  Only when he returns to the present, it’s different.  In fact, it rapidly becomes clear that the entire world is rapidly going to hell.  In the end, his mother has to die to save the world.

However, there is no plausible link as to why saving one woman’s life would cause Superman to be imprisoned, Bruce Wayne to die, Amazons and Atlanteans to embark on a globe-shattering war, etc.  It’s all because our hero dared to tamper with the way things are Meant to Be.  But this doesn’t happen when a villain jumps through time, oh no; they don’t accidentally make the world into a paradise.  In fact, in some versions, it was a time-travelling villain who killed Flash’s mother in the first place.

This is a fairly common trope; someone makes a change in the past that seems positive, but it leads to something else bad or worse.  It’s an interesting concept, and links in with the classic ends/means thing.  It also, when done well, meshes with the reality of very few things ever being purely good or purely bad, of moral compromise, and the whole complexity of everything.  But it can be done badly, and it can be done too often.  It often seems as if the writer is applying a general “conservation of suffering” or at worst a divine “do not tamper with fate!” edict.

The first famous instance of a tiny change in the past causing massive change in the future is “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, from 1952.  It has got a boost from chaos theory and its famous butterfly wing.

 

2d) It Is Written… Not!

A reversal of the above is where a character knows the future, but finds it completely impossible to change whatever they do.  In some cases this is entirely plausible; how many people fail to change government policy, for example?  But in others, it doesn’t seem that credible.  ‘Oh dear, I’m going to bet on the wrong horse and lose my money?  Well you can’t change the future, I suppose I had better get on and fill that betting slip out then.’

So what would happen if you tried to fill in the winning horse instead?  Would your pen spontaneously combust?  Would the ink magically re-arrange itself?  Would the universe blow up or extra-temporal monsters appear to threaten you?  There’s got to be some kind of mechanism that doesn’t make a nonsense of the character’s agency.

 

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