Thursday, April 02, 2020

12: 6 Praxeus


Babylon 5 was not, in fact, the first TV series to have a pre-planned five season narrative structure. Some American cop shop I never watched had done it years before. But certainly, the TV shows I grew up with — Star Trek and Thunderbirds and the Incredible Hulk had very little episode-to-episode continuity. You could shuffle the stories and show them in any order and it made little difference. Even in the eighties, Star Trek: Next Generation had little or no over-all structure. But events in one episode were allowed to affect events in subsequent episodes. Tasha Yar died, frequently. Worf lost his honour and remembered where he had left it. The Klingons either were or weren’t at war with each other.

 J. Michael Straczynski cites Cerebus the Aadvark as a major influence on Babylon 5. Not that Dave Sim was the first comic book writer to employ tight, well constructed storylines that developed over dozens of issues, of course. Chris Claremont had spent five years on what became known as the Dark Phoenix saga. But Sim was the first writer with the chutzpah to claim that he was writing one big story that would unfold over 300 issues — and to more or less pull it off.

But Babylon 5 definitely popularised the term “story arc” . I suppose the word “arc” suggests a plot with an overall shape. But for fans “arc” rapidly came to mean “the main storyline; the continuity”. An “arc story” was one which advanced the narrative about the different alien races and the evil Psi Corps. A “non arc story” was one in which some characters encountered a new problem and tried to solve it. On this definition, Classic Era Star Trek had been made up entirely of non-arc stories.

The rise of DVD, Netflix and boxed sets has made the concept of story arcs rather dated. Picard, and Good Omens, and Star Trek: Discovery and Jessica Jones and Game of Thrones don’t have arc episodes and non-arc episodes They are twelve hour movies broke down into hour long chunks.

And meanwhile, on BBC 1, on plods Doctor Who, trying to wrap up world threatening crises in 45 minutes. Yes, there is a Chibnall masterplan afoot, involving the Master, a logically impossible Doctor, and the destruction of the planet Gallifrey. But we have forgotten about that as quickly as we forgot about Adric. This week, we are all off another adventure. Fugitive of the Judoon had a spurious urgency because we knew it was an arc story. It is very hard to summons up much enthusiasm for Praxeus because we know it isn’t.


Jake is store detective. He used to be a policeman. His boyfriend Adam is an astronaut. But their relationship is on the rocks. Jake doesn’t think he is good enough for Adam; so he thinks that Adam must be being dishonest when he says that he loves him. So Jake deliberately lets down Adam and avoids intimacy in order to punish him.

“Oh mate” says Graham, who has regenerated into a gifted, intuitive relationship counsellor since last week. “I don’t think it is him you are punishing.”

This kind of thing might possibly work in one of those long, American, mid-century plays in which families make Freudian revelations after five gin soaked acts. A psychoanalyst might just possibly make a patient understand that he is subconsciously punishing his partner in order to punish himself. It isn’t something which someone would be consciously aware of and explain to a total stranger. And dramatically, it isn’t something you can introduce and resolve in a five minute scene.

I must admit that when Adam and Jake identified themselves as a married couple, my first thought was “Is there any particular reason for them to be gay?” My second thought was  “Is there any particular reason why they shouldn’t be?”My third thought was “having a couple of gay characters in a story which is not remotely about gayness will annoy the sorts of people who call this sort of thing ‘woke’”. My last thought was “Annoying those kinds of people is a very good reason for doing it.”

So, I finally know what “woke” means. Putting the kind of thing which annoys the kind of people who call the kind of thing which annoys them “woke” in order to annoy those kinds of people. The Left Hand Of Darkness, would certainly annoy the kinds of people who call things woke, but it isn’t woke, because it was never written with a view to annoying them. Praxeus was, so it is.

I don’t go as far as C.S Lewis, or indeed Isaac Asimov, in saying that science fiction is not permitted to contain any human interest subplot whatsoever. I see the argument: there is no point in setting a spy story on Alpha Centurai if it could equally have been set in Moscow: if a story of forbidden love between a Martian and a human could just have well been about forbidden love between a Muslim and Jew, then it should have been. But there are far too many exceptions for this to work as rule. Red Dwarf is arguably a character based sit com set in space which is not really about the fact that it is set in space. Lewis and Asimov were understandably pushing back against the tendency of hack writers to turn in the same kind of cowboy story they had always written but substitute six shooters for ray guns and martians for Indians.

But I do think that it is a very good rule that there should be nothing in a story which doesn’t have something to do with the story; and that the shorter the story, the more the extraneous material needs to be cut out. It is relevant to the story that Adam and Jake are a couple in order that ordinary, unheroic Jake is motivated to risk is life to save famous, heroic Adam when he is a infected with a space plague. The fact that they are an estranged couple pushes the emotional jeopardy up a jot. Cod-Freudian bullshit about self-punishment — not so much.


One of the characters in the old sketch comedy series The Fast Show was a northern teenager full of boundless energy who would perform a weekly monologue beginning “Ain’t gravity brilliant!” or “Ain’t holidays brilliant!” I was forcibly reminded of this character during the Doctor’s opening and closing monologues this week. Ain’t humans brilliant? There are so many of them! And yet some of them have something to do with each other! Some of the them are different and some of them are the same!

Some time ago there was a TV series called Heroes that quite caught the public imagination at the time, but which no one could be bothered to watch the second series of. It had an unusually large cast of characters, all following separate story lines, but over the course of 13 episodes, the different story lines converged, in quite a complicated way. Someone said it was the first TV series of the Facebook generation: it was ostensibly about superheroes but it was really about social networks.

The idea of a Doctor Who story about Heroes style human interconnectedness is not at all bad, but this wasn’t it. The only “surprising” connection is that the store detective in England turns out to be connected with the astronaut flying back from the International Space Station, and once you know they are in a relationship, that’s actually not all that surprising. What you actually have is several completely unconnected groups of people—two scientists, two bloggers and the crew of a submarine—who are connected only in so far as if they have all been infected by the new alien-virus-of-the-week.

Using the TARDIS to tell a story which is taking place simultaneously in London, Peru, Hong Kong, Madagascar and the Bottom of the Sea is quite a good idea. It makes use of Doctor Who’s USP to tell a story that you couldn’t have told in any other format. It’s the same kind of thing as having Spyfall unfold in the present day, in Victorian times and in the Second World War. And it has the same problem. Things would have panned out very similarly if the three people possessed by alien plastic virus monsters had been in Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Mornington Crescent. The exotic locations were just there as scenery. Very pretty scenery, I must admit.


Go back to the half way point, just before they all go the alien base at the bottom of the sea. Just before they find out who Suki really is.

Now suppose that nice Suki had turned out to be yet another new incarnation of the Master. Does anything in the first 35 minutes of the episode prevent that from being the resolution.

Okay: now suppose that nice Suki turns out to be yet another logically impossible new incarnation of the Doctor. Again, does anything that has been foreshadowed up to this point prevent that from being the twist?

We have not started from the (not uninteresting under the present circumstances) idea that Evil Aliens have been using the earth as a petri dish to find a cure for the alien virus plastic that is destroying their civilisation. We have started with some random scenes — dead submariner exploding off the coast of Madagascar, dead blogger exploding in Peru, poorly astronaut suffering from the same greyscale that the explodey people were suffering from in Hong Kong — and then, very late in the story, trying to find something which desperately ties then together.

The big twist and the big revelation is arbitrary. It come from nowhere. Aha! You never realised but in fact I am PROFESSOR MORIARTY

Note that Suki has travelled across three galaxies to come to earth. Seven hundred and fifty billion star systems, and we are the only planet with a pollution problem.


There was a celebrated political cartoon in the Guardian which cast Michael Grove as the Jeff Goldblum character in independence day: begging for the chance to pilot a flying saucer against the aliens even though he had no prior experience in flying. (The implication was that Gove was doing political jobs he had no expertise in).

For the climax of this story to work, we have to believe that Ryan, who has never heard of Mary Queen of Scots or pathogens, remembers enough school biology to perform an autopsy on a dead pigeon. That the controls of an alien spaceship are sufficiently straightforward (“up, down, left, right”) that Jake, the ex-policemen, can save the world by flying the thing into orbit. That Graham is able to fit a cannula and a medical drip because he was once a chemotherapy patient.

I can believe in plastic eating alien parasites that make humans explode: but some of this stuff is too far fetched even for me.


When Jake first encounters Yaz and Graham in Hong Kong he asks who they are. “We are the people with the big set of skeleton keys” replies Yaz.

Later, Yaz and Gabriella (the travel blogger) decide to teleport to what they expect to be an alien planet even though the Doctor has told them not to. “Where is the worst place we could end up?” asks Gabriella. “Long list. You don’t want to know” replies Yaz. And on the other side of the teleport. “It’s not an active volcano. Result!”

So. Is the idea that Yaz has been with the Doctor for so long that she is starting to sound like the Doctor. Is this a very broad hint that she is yet another previously unmentioned and logically impossible incarnation of the Doctor? Or is it just that Chibnall can only write one kind of dialogue?


Yes, as a matter of fact, I am finding it hard to actually write a review of this episode. But not nearly as hard as I found watching it. I fell asleep on the first two attempts and eventually got to the end of it by pressing “pause” every ten minutes and going off to tidy the kitchen.


Richard Worth said...

While 'priggish' is the kind of adjective last used by children in a Narnia story, there may be an issue where characters and plots appear to be there to score points and tick boxes rather than advance the story. One of the nice moments of Russell T Davis 'Years and Years' is when the liberal parents are OK with their daughter being trans, until they realise that she means trans-human.
Likewise, most of New Who's companions have been presented as the ordinary bloke or girl-next-door, serving as the Doctor's strong right arm, conscience or common sense. However, when Peter Jackson adapted 'Moral Engines', he aged the four main characters from sixteen to early twenties, so Tom had some training as a pilot, Susan Valentine was an experienced girl-about-town and minor celebrity, who might reasonably have taken the controls of London before as a favour to her father. By contrast, Sheffield could yield someone who was a scientist, or an experienced police detective, or an Olympic athlete, or a stranded alien. Instead it yields three Dr Watsons, but without the first aid skills or service revolver.

Nick M said...

Maybe this time!

Mike Taylor said...

I found this one very frustrating, too. Because it wasn't quite not doing anything, but was trying to do something, but without quite knowing what. I think they could have made the first 20 minutes, showed it to essentially any Doctor Who fan and asked "What is it that ties all these things together?" and got back a better answer than the one they went with.

Aonghus Fallon said...

We seem to have a lot of the same cultural reference points (apart from maybe the most pertinent - ie, Doctor Who)

(1) Last week I wondered aloud (on, I think) if 'The Dispossessed' could be classified as an SF novel as it could just as easily be set alternately on a Kibbutz and in New York without any real damage to the storyline.
(2) Two days ago I watched 'Brilliant!' on YouTube (it's still pretty hilarious).
(3) And an hour ago I watched - picking it entirely at random and not having watched STTNG in a very long time - 'Yesterday's Enterprise' * which complied neatly with all your criteria (still a good episode though).

And I'm pretty much with you on the whole gay thing. You haven't started re-reading Robert Westall novels by any chance?

* after checking if either Netflix or Amazon had Babylon5, as I've never seen it. (they don't - at least, not in Ireland).

JAn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JAn said...

I'm happy to play with pre-Covid19 rules (and in these current times a touch of nostalgia can be a salve), but I do believe the latest revision disallows the Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Mornington Crescent bish-bash-bosh tri-leap.