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Sherlock Who?

Saturday, 8. February 2014 10:46

Having now watched all of the third season of Sherlock, I’m beginning to see two things that annoyed me in the recent seasons of Dr. Who creeping into this show too, and I am freshly annoyed – annoyed enough to make my first blog post in seven months.

Away we go, then.


Annoying Thing One – It’s A Small World After All

The founding principles of both the Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes franchises are very similar, they are both about superhumanly intelligent individuals with sidekicks who go around helping people in trouble. Remove all the trappings of genre and what you’ve got is a simple, serial formula in which each episode introduces the victim, their problem, and their antagonist, and then the hero swoops in, solves the problem and defeats the villain with some witty, out-of-the-box thinking before moving on, leaving the victim grateful and bedazzled.

This is not a very innovative formula – it has been used in one form or another for just about every detective show ever, from Colombo to Foyle’s War to Miss Marple – but it is a very satisfying, comforting one.

It also has another virtue – it adds novelty to every episode by bringing new people and new situations into the story. This in turn does several other important things.

1 – It gives the audience more realistic people and problems to identify with. We may not all be time lords or high functioning sociopaths with hyper-articulate supervillains hunting us down, but we have all been at the mercy of forces greater than we can handle, and we have all wished that someone smarter and more powerful than us would come along and solve our insoluble problems for us.

2 – Merely by being human, those more realistic people provide the contrast which allows the audience to see how superhumanly intelligent our hero is by comparison.

3 – It allows the stories to be about anything, from high finance, to sports, to high school drama, to war, to romance, to court intrigue, and on and on. Because the victim is unconnected to the hero except by the fact that they have asked him or her for help, their world doesn’t have to reflect the hero’s world in any way, and this variety allows to series remain fresh and open. It makes the world the heroes live in larger.

Both Dr. Who and Sherlock have lately begun to drift from this formula, and I think it has weakened them.

Have you noticed in both shows, that rather than saving other people, the stories have become more and more about saving the Doctor and Sherlock, or their immediate associates?

In the whole of this latest series of Sherlock, as far as I can remember, he only takes two clients who are not people he already knows, and he has a face-to-face scene with only one of those. All the rest of the drama and danger is directed at him, his immediate friends or family, or their friends and family. There is a world of crime out there, but the show closes that world down to Sherlock, John, Mary, Mycroft, and Mrs. Hudson. In the first episode, there isn’t even an on-screen villain. In the second the villain gets two or three lines at the most. In the last episode, we never see the person whose case Sherlock has supposedly taken in a scene together.

The same contraction happened in the last season of Dr. Who. Where the stories increasingly became about the Doctor’s problems and the problems of his friends, than those of anybody else. Indeed, as if to drive this fact home, four out of the last five shows of the last series (including minis and specials) were titled The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor, and The Time of the Doctor. It’s a great big universe, but the only people who matter are the doctor and his friends.

An example of this is the Christmas special, where the Doctor goes to a planet called Christmas and saves it, but only three or four people on the planet get lines, and only one of them is even given a name. It may be a story about saving a planet full of people, but it’s clear that the only important person in the story is the Doctor. The folks he’s saving are ciphers.

To me, this myopic focus on the Doctor and his problems, or on Sherlock and his problems, makes both of them – and their shows – weaker. The personal troubles of an immortal time traveler and a infallible detective are not enough to carry a series, and too much focus on them waters down the core concepts of the shows. Sherlock is a detective. He should solve cases – not be the focus of them. The doctor is – when you remove all the timey-wimey bells and whistles – a conflict resolution specialist. He should resolve conflicts – not be the focus of them.

Character arcs are not necessary for these characters. Sherlock and the Doctor have always been static characters – catalysts that change the lives of others, but do not change themselves. Their function in every story is to be the enigmatic deus ex machina, and if they cease to be enigmas, if they cease to do their jobs, then they cease to be interesting.


Annoying Thing Two – Cool Character, Bro

Another founding principle of both shows – and basically any show, book, or comic that has a single character’s name for a title – is that the title character is the only one who can do the thing they can do. Sherlock can deduce facts from the smallest details, the Doctor can solve problems with techno-babble and nine hundred years of experience, other detectives and heroes have their own unique gifts. What gives them power and longevity as heroes and brand names is that uniqueness. If everybody in his world is invulnerable and can fly, then Superman is just an ordinary Joe. If everybody can kick ass in a cowl and cape, then Batman is just another guy with insomnia.

So it goes with the Doctor and Sherlock. When other characters are shown to be as good or better than them at the things they specialize in, they become weaker and less singular by comparison.

If, for instance, Captain Jack Harkness not only has adventures in time and space and is immortal, but is also better looking than the Doctor and a hit with both the ladies and the gentlemen, of if River Song flies the Tardis better than the Doctor does, and reveals that the signature sound that the Tardis makes is the parking brake, which the doctor always forgets to take off, these things rub away a little of the Doctor’s uniqueness and make what he does seem less extraordinary.

If, for another instance, Sherlock acquires a cockney apprentice who makes brilliant, on-the-fly deductions in the same way he does, his best friend’s wife is a former assassin for the CIA, his brother is a master of accent and disguise in addition to being the “second most powerful man in the land”, and his landlady was once the wife of the leader of a drug cartel, then almost everyone he knows has special skills and an over the top back-story, lessening his skills and back story because of the diminished contrast.

Having an assortment of bad-ass characters with special skills and interesting backgrounds works wonderfully in an ensemble story, like Leverage or the Avengers, but when the main character’s name is the title of the show, they should not be upstaged.



So who is responsible for these annoying things, and why are they happening? Well, since both series have the same executive producer, the first part of that question is easy to answer – Steven Moffat is the culprit. “Why” is a more difficult question, and since I’m no detective, I’m going to have to rely on theory, conjecture, and personal prejudice, like every other blogger on the internet.

I will admit up front that Mr. Moffat drives me a little bit mad. Before he was executive producer on Doctor Who, he wrote some of my favorite shows of the new series – The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, and Silence in the Library, and when I heard he was going to take over the show, I expected great things. I expected every show to be a perfect self-contained jewel of storytelling like those episodes were.

This has not happened. Instead of focusing on neatly crafted short stories that use the doctor as the enigmatic catalyst for their resolution – like the afore-mentioned episodes – he has created season-long, and sometimes multi-season-long arcs that have often ended up leaving the Doctor written into convoluted corners and diminished as a character. He has also introduced, as I said earlier, side characters that seem to be vying with the Doctor – and now with Sherlock – to be the coolest character in the show.

Why has he done this? My guess is that he secretly wishes he was writing his own series about his own lead character, and is a bit peeved that he’s working on characters who both had long and storied histories before he came along. Not only does he seem to want to put his stamp on both characters, so that they are remembered as Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, he can’t, at the same time, seem to resist having his pet characters prove they are the heroes’ equals, who most certainly should have their own shows.

I know very well this temptation. I too have written series characters who I did not create, and have been tempted to put my own stamp on those heroes and elevate my own pet characters to their level. What can you expect from a writer? It would be impossible, after all, for someone to write a story of any kind without some of their personality and prejudice coming through. And I admit that I did occasionally let too much of my personality and prejudice come through in some of the franchises I worked on.

Fortunately though, I had vigilant editors who generally caught me when I strayed, and stopped me from going too far. I am grateful for that, because I believe that a writer writing a character not-his-own has a responsibility to as much as possible make the character the star, and to make himself disappear.

Naturally this doesn’t pertain to a writer’s original characters and series. With those he can do what he wants, but when working in someone else’s world, the writer should remember that they are a guest, and aren’t going to be the last writer to use the character, so try to leave it in as good or better shape than when you were given it.

So there!

Category:Movies, Writing | Comments (4) | Author:

A Finger in the Eye

Tuesday, 2. July 2013 10:36

 Note. This post is adapted from the introduction I wrote for the Blackhearts Omnibus, for Black Library’s Warhammer Universe. Though originally specific to that book, it remains the best summation I’ve managed to write about my philosophy of heroes and heroic fiction.

The Blackhearts Omnibus

When I moved out to Hollywood twenty five years ago, my “big idea” was to write traditional action movies with non-traditional heroes. I loved action movies – still do – but I got tired of the heroes. Too many of them were big, square-jawed white guys who ran around like they owned the place and solved all their problems with their fists or their guns – James Bond, Dirty Harry, Commando, Rambo, Batman, Robo-Cop. They were always the biggest, toughest – and here’s the important one – the least human characters in the movie.

True, there were exceptions, and it was the exceptions that I loved the best. Aliens, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, The Road Warrior, Southern Comfort – all starred heroes that had at least some flaws and a few scraps of humanity.

I wanted to take that notion further. I wanted my heroes to be people of average ability but above-average heart – working men, house wives, punk rockers, beat cops, common soldiers, small time hoods – who were swept up in an extraordinary situation and, because they weren’t the best fighters or athletes, and because they didn’t have the biggest guns or biceps, had to use their guts and their brains to stay alive and save the day.

Needless to say, I didn’t sell too many scripts, but when Black Library asked me to write a novel for them… well, I thought I’d give my ‘big idea’ another shot.

In his introduction to The Founding, the first Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus, Dan Abnett talked about choosing to write about the grunts of the Imperial Guard because he couldn’t relate to the ‘too perfect’ space marines. I had the same problem with Warhammer Fantasy. I loved the grim horror and grimy patina of the Old World, but I didn’t want to write about the noble knights of the Empire. I couldn’t get inside their heads. To me, they were the same big, square-jawed white guys who bored me to tears in the movies.

How could anyone care about men so brave, and so certain in their beliefs, that they never have a moment of fear or doubt. I don’t believe these people exist, and if they do, I don’t want to know them. They’re dangerous to be around and they’re boring to talk to at parties. If you have no fear of the enemy and don’t think twice about running into burning buildings to save dewy-eyed children, you’re not a hero, you’re an idiot. A hero, at least in my mind, is the guy who pees his pants when he thinks about the enemy, is terrified of burning, and yet, when faced with the choice of fleeing or doing the right thing, overcomes his fears and runs into the fire.

So, I wrote about my kind of heroes – the Blackhearts –  a noble second son turned failed student and professional gambler, a pair of sly farm boys, a field surgeon with nasty habits, a larcenous mercenary, a construction engineer, a fencing instructor, a quartermaster, a student of botany, and a handful of low ranking professional soldiers, and many others. There wasn’t a square-jawed hero among them. Of course they had the occasional heroic impulse, but those were surrounded by episodes of villainy, cowardice, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-interest, and plain old stupidity. And they rarely won with their swords. They won with guts, determination and brains – crapping themselves all the while. And, when left to my own devices, I have followed them with characters of similar stripe, a noblewoman turned vampire whose every heroic action is bracketed by fits of teenaged tantrums, a biker chick who is willing to let murderous revenge trump loyalty, friendship, and honor, and there are more to come, I hope. Many more.

There is a precedent for my sort of hero. There was a time in popular culture when the big guy with the big muscles and the big gun who beat everybody up was the bad guy, and the little guy who stood up to him and fought back with brains and heart and guts was the good guy. Those little guys are my idols – Charlie Chaplin outwitting the Keystone Kops, Robin Hood tricking the Sheriff of Nottingham, Bugs Bunny getting the better of Elmer Fudd, Jackie Chan running circles around an army of gangsters, the Marx Brothers talking circles around an army of bureaucrats, David knocking out Goliath with nothing but a rock and a leather strap.

The Blackhearts, Ulrika, Jane Carver, they’re the scrappy descendants of these little guys – hard-luck losers trapped in a world of monolithic armor-clad behemoths that care not one whit for the survival of the mere mortals scrambling desperately to stay alive beneath their enormous, iron-shod feet. I wanted the stories of my heroes to be a reminder that, no matter what insignia the behemoths may wear, or what philosophy they may spout, a bully is a bully, and no matter how much they beat you down, as long as you’ve got one finger left, you can still poke the bastards in the eye.

Category:Jane Carver, Movies, Warhammer, Writing | Comments (2) | Author:

Nerd Bull Session #1046

Sunday, 10. March 2013 1:33

D – God, that movie sucked!

K – Seriously! How does the same boring Australian get cast in both Avatar and Clash of the Titans? He’s the least interesting person in both movies! They should have made Mads Mikkelson Perseus. That would have rocked!

N – I liked the Kraken.

K – Yeah, Long, you would. Man, what a turd! Are there any fantasy or sci-fi movies that are better than the books they’re based on? Any at all?

D – Hmmmmmm. Good one.

N – Wait. So, do I have to have read the book too?

K – Well, duh. How are you gonna compare if you haven’t?

N – Yeesh. That’s gonna narrow it down some. Let me think.

D – Blade Runner? Two Thousand One?

K – Have you actually read either of those?

D – Well, no, but…

K – What did we just say?

N – Okay, I got one. I saw the first Harry Potter and read the first book. But, uh, didn’t care for either of them enough to continue. Hmmm.

D – Dune! No, never mind. That was terrible. Man. This is harder than it looks.

N – I know! Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!

K – What? Come on, dude. Pick a grown-up movie.

N – I’m serious. It’s a great movie. I don’t know if it’s better than the book, but it’s as good. It stands on its own, and, yeah, I would say it’s a grown-up movie. There’s a lot of social satire in there – Mike TV and all that – that would go right over kids’ heads. Plus there’s that whole layer of creepy psychedelia laid on top of it all. That tunnel scene is still scarier than most horror movies.

K – Okay, fine. Now pick an adult movie.

N – But, but they’re all terrible. There isn’t a single– Oh wait! A Clockwork Orange. That was great.

D – And you read the book? Really?

N – I did. In high school. I don’t honestly remember that much about it. It was good, though, I remember that – a nasty little satire of British values, with a lot of linguistic candy thrown in just for fun. The movie, though, it just fucks with you. You’re going along, blown away by the look of it and kinda horrified by the violence, then you end up rooting for the bad guy, this complete psychopath, because the authorities are worse. It’s amazing. Completely makes you question yourself and your values.

K – Alright. I’ll give you that one. Clockwork Orange was brilliant. No argument. Anything else?

D – Wait. Hang on a second. Let’s turn it around. If all movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit–

N – Most movies.

D – Okay, if most movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit, then what genre novels would you like to see made into movies?

K – And have them turned into shit? No thanks.

D – No no. Best case scenario. Best screenwriter. Best director. Best. Cast. Ever. What books?

N – Easy. I’ve got three, right off the top of my head.

K – Of course you do. Let me guess, Long. These are books you, personally, want to make into movies. I bet you already have scripts written and everything.

N – I do not. Well, treatments, yes. Scripts, no. Whaddaya want from a screenwriter?

D – Okay okay, let’s hear ’em.

N – Right. Well, the first one’s pretty obvious, at least if you know me. I’ve always wanted to do a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser movie. Or a series, maybe. I’ve never understood why nobody’s ever done it. They’re perfect for movies. An easier fit than most fantasy.

D – Why? Aside from them being your favorites.

N – Well, look. You got Conan, right. He’s the silent, brooding type. You gotta bring in a lot of extra characters just so there’s some dialog now and then. And he’s a little too super for my taste. Nobody’s tougher than Conan, which kinda kills the tension. Then you’ve got Elric. He’s broody too. Worse. And when he does talk, it’s all serious and shit. Hollywood can’t do serious fantasy. It ends up sounding like bad Shakespeare. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser on the other hand, they’re more like average guys. They’re a fantasy buddy movie waiting to happen. It would be like Lethal Weapon with swords.

B – You say that like it’d be a good thing.

N – It would if I wrote it. Lots of fights and snappy repartee, desperate situations, evil priests, big monsters, sexy swordswomen, skulls, towers, jewels. How could it go wrong?

K – This is Hollywood, remember. They’d find a way. What’s number two?

Okay, this one’s pretty obscure. It’s called House of Stairs, by William Sleator. It’s about these five orphan kids who are put into a kind of a Skinner Box labyrinth with no food or–

K – Wait a minute. Kids? Is this another YA? What is it with you and kids books? Did you stop reading when you were twelve?

N – Uh, I’m sorry, how many times have you seen the Captain America movie? Anyway, there’s a machine in the middle of the labyrinth, right? And when the lights on the machine start flashing food and water comes out. At least it does at first. After a while, the machine only give out food after they’ve done something, like dance, or do a trick, or fight each other. Some of the kids will do anything to get the food, but two of them rebel. They… well, it’s all about individualism versus conformity, and it really hit me hard when I was a kid. My image of myself as an outsider, all that punk rock pride I used to have. A lot of it comes from this book, and in this day and age, a movie about that kind of stuff could really–

D – Oh my god, he’s preaching! Next! Next!

N – Aw, fuck you guys. It would be good. Okay, okay. Next. You know who Tim Powers is? Or is he over your reading level? The Stress of Her Regard? The Anubis Gates?

K – You mean the guy who wrote the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie?

N – That’s all you know him from? That’s just sad. He’s, like, the best writer on the planet. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to see his book Last Call as a movie. That’s the one about the guy who loses his soul in a poker game and finds out he’s a pawn in a big game of supernatural power politics that’s all wrapped up in tarot cards and who gets to be the Year King of the West. Great characters, a great story, and a kind of noir fantasy that you almost never see on screen. You want grown-up fantasy with real people and real emotions? Call somebody famous and get ’em to make that movie.

D – You call somebody. You’re the Hollywood screenwriter.

N – Yeah, I wrote Guyver Two. That and four bucks will get you a cappuccino in this town. Aw, forget it. Change the subject. What are we watching next?

K – Uh, let’s see. Oh, this is gonna be epic. We got Solomon Kane, or the new Conan movie. Your pick.

N – Aw, dude. You’re killing me!

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