The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Four

I’m starting to feel more properly festive now. The quality of light here is getting absolutely right. Not just wintery, but that Scandinavian darkness that requires us to put small lights up within it, to say that in death we are in life. Perhaps centuries ago, the snow that those clouds like they might bring was life-threatening, but now it’s just magic out of something so bleak. Time to light fires and gather together. That feeling is helped by the ceremony of getting in touch with people so as to send cards out, on this, the Last Day of the Second Class Post. That’s actually why we do this whole card business, I think, to swap those e-mails that ask for your address in return, and how are you keeping these days? The Fifteen Minute Club, the talent show down the Portwell, ended last night with Caroline and Helen and newly-engaged Mel singing carols, after Neil had treated us to his singalong punk version of ‘Silent Night’. Drinks with my Agent tomorrow night. Ah, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Okay, first off, the announcement. (Pyr Books Editor and publisher) Lou Anders has accepted ‘Catherine Drewe’, the first of what I hope to be a series of SF stories concerning a new character, Jonathan Hamilton, for publication in his latest anthology, Fast Forward 2. It’ll be out next October, John Picacio is doing the cover, and I’m joining stories already accepted from Jack Skillingstead, Nancy Kress and Paul McAuley. I’ve nearly finished the second Hamilton story (which I’ll be pitching to another anthology) and have material together for the third. These are violent, rather to the point espionage stories, set in the future, in a world that diverged from our own at a point which I may hint at, but I look forward to letting the reader figure out for themselves. Here’s the first Fast Forward anthology, with some lovely review quotes:

I feel like I’m going to be in good company.

The Facebook contest in association with my Doctor Who story in the Daily Telegraph has now generated many, many responses. We’ll be announcing the major prize tomorrow. And the Harry Sullivan/Mutant Clam petition score stands, tonight, at 143. More news as we get it. But now, to the main feature.

In today’s blog, I’d like to talk about the relationship between audiences and drama. Something that I always end up saying at conventions, often when I’m on panels about Battlestar Galactica, is: drama is not your puppy. By which I mean to say that in the course of a good drama, characters the viewer cares about may well be hurt, die (not always heroically), make bad choices, do bad things, agonise you with what they’re doing and with what is being done to them. As I said yesterday, as much as I love Studio 60 or any other Aaron Sorkin drama, I’ll hesitate before watching it, and sometimes opt for lighter fare, because I know it’s going to hurt me. That’s the contract I make with it. It’s not there to console me, comfort me, make me feel better right now, although it may end up doing that in the end. The comfort it finally affords me is that of the blues. It’s actually there to make me feel alive and connected with the rest of human experience, hopefully extreme human experience that I’d prefer to do like this rather than first hand, thanks very much. Now, you’re probably thinking, well, obviously. What’s the alternative? Well, let’s not name all the telefantasy shows over the years where the leads are incapable of human weakness, heroes rather than people. That’s rather grand in the original Star Trek, in the context of TV back then (and not quite the case, even), but not if you want to take any of the sequel shows seriously. (Deep Space Nine being the one that broke the mold.) The trouble some fans have with the new Galactica is that it’s ‘impossible to identify with anyone for very long’. That is to say, every character eventually, at some point, acts like an ass. As in life. As, often, in non-telefantasy shows on network TV, where characters are allowed light and dark. But Galactica’s not even that. Galactica’s a cable show, and cable is the place where we’re successfully asked to identify with protagonists who are in crime families.

To give an example of where cable can take us, Titus Pullo, the central character of the terrific Rome, is at one point called upon to go and kill Cicero (David Bamber, also wonderful as Constantine in Caroline’s Doctor Who play The Council of Nicea). Titus makes a day out of it, takes his family for a picnic nearby, and then goes and matter of factly tells Cicero his time has come, and gives him a few minutes to compose himself. When the writer and politician is ready, Pullo mercifully guts him and cheerfully goes on his way. Now, Cicero is not a ‘bad guy’. He’s shown duplicity and cowardice, sure, but we’re broadly in sympathy with him, and he dies with great nobility. He’s murdered only for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. But at no point do we lose our sympathy for Pullo, doing what he does. We’re taken on an extreme journey with him. He makes us very uncomfortable. But it is not necessary for him to be heroic for us to find him compelling and worthy of our wanting him to survive the series.

But compare with when the great Joss Whedon tried to suggest that Buffy might get into a dark place and be self-destructive and nihilistic and want to have rather too much goth sex with Spike. Even as a character arc, which was obviously going to lead back to light and heroism, it caused an outcry. Consider the handful of Doctor Who fans (to use an example close to my own heart) who refused to identify with John Smith for a heartbeat after he allowed Tim to be beaten. Consider the comics fans who rail against anything that ‘hurts’ their favourite character (as opposed to harms the integrity of, although the two are used interchangeably).

My point is, drama hurts, so if you want telefantasy and comics characters to be in drama, they’re going to get hurt and do hurt in ways which will hurt you, the reader. You getting hurt is actually the aim, above and beyond your identification with the character. Because if you can be hurt deeply, you’ve also been opened up to being moved, and filled with joy, and given access to all those other deep feelings of drama. But you can’t get that without buying the ticket.

Now, if you’re thinking I’m being too harsh here, I have three caveats. Firstly, you might want to go ‘hey, I just want some escapist fun, I never claimed I wanted drama’. Fair enough, I love escapist fun too, I take the Spy Who Loved Me option, very often. But please don’t do that and then claim dramatic gravitas for your favourite escapist fun. Secondly, I was bullied like hell was a kid, I think you might well have been too. One of the consequences of that is we can have trouble with deep emotion, because connecting to people only leads to hurt. We tend to call drama ‘soap opera’ and have a very British stiff upper lip. We find actual soap operas, with their staged high emotion, to be terrible spectacles of incontinent peril that threaten to suck us in. Maybe we’re attracted to pure hero shows because of the very light manipulation of drama muscles therein. I know I am. You guys who share my feelings about that stuff shouldn’t feel put upon by anything I’m saying here. In fact, I hope nobody does. We all have to experience drama in our own way, and I’m just making a few observations.

My third caveat is of a different order. SF and Fantasy fans in all media are excusably highly sensitised to writers hurting them, because that has sometimes been done not for the purposes of drama, but deliberately. It’s been done to mock a certain sort of consumer, or suggest that times have changed and old school readers should shape up or ship out, or because a creator’s not comfortable with their own fannishness, or to distance a title from the low-selling ghettos.

I think it’s important for both fans and creators to know where that line lies. I’ve seen creators who I know for a fact care for nothing but the drama accused of taking jabs at fans. I think fandoms in general should think a lot harder about when the hurt is caused by not what they should disdain, but by what they should pursue. But in return for an acceptance of extremity, of drama, I think it’s necessary for creators never to lash out at those that love their characters.

Why is this an issue for me now? Because if you love certain British Marvel Comics heroes, you should know I’m going to put them through drama next year. You could say, therefore, that I want to hurt them, and that I want to hurt you. But only, I promise, for the best possible reasons.

Hmm. I hope everyone who read that last paragraph started at the top of the article. Anyhow, phew, that felt like a bit of a blog workout, hopefully not for you too!

Today’s link is from the multi-talented Barnaby Edwards, fine artist, actor, Dalek operator on the new series of Doctor Who, and audio writer. He’s just adapted (and directed) The Phantom of the Opera as a full cast audio drama for the new Big Finish Classics series, starring Anna Massey, James D'Arcy, Alexander Siddig and Peter Guinness. It’s available for download now, will be out on CD in March, and BBC7 will transmit Episode One on Sunday 23rd December at 6pm (and each subsequent Sunday for a further three weeks). Go on, go have a look:

Until I see you tomorrow, Cheerio!

11 Response to "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Four"

  • SK Says:

    Oh, dear, please don't you, of all people, into the trap of thinking 'stiff upper lip' = 'doesn't like to feel'. I thought you understood Britishness better than that. The point of a stiff upper lip is not to not feel, but to feel more deeply because you're not getting carried away with the superficialities of wailing, screaming, and other uncouth expressions of emotion.

    It's still waters that run deep, you know. Histrionics of the kind foreigners and colonials are given to are what betray a shallowness, a need to enter a sort of psycho-physical feedback loop in order to experience drama. If one has to squeal in order to convince oneself that one feels something, well, that's betraying weak drama muscles because it's having to build a run-up in order to respond, and that's what tends to attach itself to things which are rather lighter dramatically. The more powerful dramatic works on the other hand tend to be sought out and experienced by those with a rather more mature, and less piercingly aural, reaction. With a stiffer, one might say, upper lip.

    Is there a more moving moment in comics than when Dan Dare, in an enemy ship with no mans of signaling that he is in control, approaches his friends' defensive position and is shot down by them -- and resolves to ditch in the sea because, if he is to die, he doesn't want his pals to know what they've done? He doesn't blub, he doesn't rail, and that's what shows the depth of his devotion.

    Apart from that tangential but not at all minor point (at least, not for those of us who don't like old misleading clich├ęs about our Britishness being rehashed), dead right.

  • Rob Stickler Says:

    We find actual soap operas, with their staged high emotion, to be terrible spectacles of incontinent peril that threaten to suck us in.

    I used to find myself in tears whenever I watched Eastenders. Eventually I realised it was nothing to do with the content, or the quality; it was just the opportunity to gorge on emotion (or drama).

    Catharsis for an emo-cripple, I suppose. I think I was addicted for a little while.

  • The Sword Is Drawn Says:

    A well balanced argument, Paul.

    No ongoing series (Regardless of medium) can exist in a state of stasis - telling the same tales over and over. Characters, and their lives, have to show progression both to remain interesting, and to remain in any way convincing.

    I can say, personally, over the last couple of years I've encountered a lot of guys online (In comics forums in particular) who have felt personally wronged by changes made to a favourite character or series. And sometimes I can genuinely understand their point of view. But others do seem to take it that bit too far. Granted, I think that the vast majority of Internet forum complaints are intentionally OTT, probably with less of a sense of genuine aggression, and more of a sense of irony and outlet of humour. But sometimes I genuinely do find myself wondering if they actually believe, on a very personal level, that Writer X has aimed some kind of bizarre cosmic-level slight at them, in particular.

    And that's a little scary.

    I myself have kind of found myself labelled online as 'That Guy who likes Captain Britain,' as you probably know (A tag I both accept and condemn in equal measure) God knows, I've seen the character get cancelled and brought back so often over the last twenty years (Dear God, has it really been THAT long?), seen plots started and dropped, and phased out by later re-writes. I've even seen Brian Braddock spend a couple of years as a flaming-eyed, mullet wearing semi-living automaton (The happy days as 'Britannic'...)

    It can be a little frustrating, sure. But would I trade that for never reading the character again? Or creating some private space in my head where certain stories never happened?

    Hell, no. Because, in some strange and sometimes self-punishing way (Which might be a British trait, I dunno) that's the very thing I love about reading the character. Taking the rough with the smooth, and watching the character progress. It would be pointless if he didn't. And I would by far prefer to see somebody writing new Captain Britain or Excalibur than not having either, at all.

    And anyway, nothing in comics cannot be re-written, anyway. Right? ;-)

    I have to say I look forward to seeing what you have planned for Excalibur, and for Marvel's Britain, next year. I've always maintained that while it has kind of become Marvel's forgotten property there are still plenty of stories that could be told there, and characters just waiting to be picked up again, after over a decade in mothballs. And not wishing to sound disrespectful to those characters, right down the line from Cap to Reston and Black Jack Tarr, from Death's Head, to Motormouth and Killpower, for a long while they HAVE been dead properties. I'm sure that a fair few people still remember them, but there is a certain amount of freedom for reinvention here, which maybe doesn't exist so much in other quarters of of Marvel's Universe.

    Run any number of those characters you wish, through the mill, next year. I'll enjoy seeing them get a run-out, more.

  • faldor Says:

    very interesting read that, I do find it odd that people keep trying to push 'interactive media' where the viewer gets to decide the story.

    because of just the points you've made.

    you'd feel great if Romeo and Juliet ended before they died horribly.

    but it wouldnt be very good.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Indeed, SK, I'm a big fan of the stiff upper lip, and use it a lot in my own work. But it's about strength in the face of danger, not emotional detachment in the face of everyday life. Rob: phew! Sword: great stuff as always. And Faldor: great line, sums it up!

  • Rob Stickler Says:

    Rob: phew!

    Yeah, I should have pointed out I'm alright now though!



  • Rob Says:

    You won't be surprised, I suppose, that I'm endorsing SK. I'm sick to death of hearing that there is something inherently worthy about melodrama. Real emotion is ALL about understatement, nuance and subtlety. The brashness of a soap-opera "heart-on-sleeve" approach is nothing to do with emotional honesty, and everything to do with simple emotional immaturity. The very term "emotion" derives from a *physical* sensation, one which is autonomic, and requires no skill or integrity to display in its raw form. The Human experience is in incorporating those physical reactions into a social framework, and we are better, not worse, for doing so.

    God, I'm rambling. You're dead right about BSG Paul. In those last few episodes, the last remaining morally "pure" characters sullied themselves. But I like the place that leaves us in - it's like a Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah western, where everyone is a bastard, so you are forced to choose *between* bastards. Great stuff.

  • SK Says:

    My whole point, though, was to dispute the notion that not giving in to superficial displays of emotion has anything to do with 'emotional detachment in the face of everyday life'.

    Just because you don't blub, jump up and down, scream or hug every friend you meet, doesn't mean that you don't feel.

    Also what Mr Rob wrote.

  • Rob Says:

    Only I would go more extreme, SK, and say that to do those things indicates that you DON'T feel; at least not properly. You just reflect events without absorbing them.

    Anyway, that's enough hijacking Paul's blog!

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    You two go ahead, I'll just pop my head in from time to time with pies. And yes, I like to choose between bastards.

  • Rob Says:

    I'd rather choose between pies!

    Mmmmm.... pies....