Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Story Arc "Craze"?

I know that this post by Jonathan Wright over at The Guardian is designed to provoke a response and, let's face it, sci-fi fans have notoriously easy buttons to push but, on this occasion, I'm going to rise to the bait. Mainly because I think the points he's raising display a worryingly simplistic and just plain wrong attitude.*

For those of you who don't feel like following the link, his overall argument seems to be that sci-fi TV programmes should just consist of simple, one-off episodes like they all used to before Babylon 5. The main prompt for this being that returning series Torchwood is going for an attention-busting storyline stretched over five whole episodes (however will our tiny minds cope with such an epic tale?).

Not only was the story arc well established in sci-fi television long before Babylon 5 (shows from Quatermass through to Doctor Who and Sapphire And Steel had multi-episode storylines and even series like Blake's 7 had ongoing plot threads) but the idea that having a over-arching storyline precludes you from crafting individual stand alone episodes is ridiculous. You only have to look at shows such as Buffy, Angel and Farscape to see examples of shows which were able to create excellent self-contained episodes while still providing a well-thought out story arcs.

He also seems to have confused himself as to the genre of some of these shows. "Try looking for the gags in the final series of Battlestar Galactica"? Well, I take his point that the last episodes of the show could be unrelentingly grim but it's a character-based, sci-fi drama. It's unlikely to have "gags" as it's not a sitcom. Surely looking for them in the first place would be something of a waste of time?

I'm not saying that every show should have an ongoing storyline. It's definitely true that The X-Files' attempts to create an ongoing arc were ultimately frustrating, unsatisfying and irritating but that's an example of it not being done well. Done well, it can be an immensely satisfying thing.

I guess we see things differently. Mr Wright seems to prefer shows which you can leap into at any point without having to know any of the backstory. But, personally, any show which has such a limited amount of character or plot development that it makes no odds whether you join in on the first or the tenth series just doesn't appeal to me. For me, the beauty of the story arc is that it rewards your loyal viewing with development, with change and, if it's been properly planned and executed, with resolution. I'd rather have TV that challenges me, that draws and maintains my attention as opposed to something that was left to stagnate.

*Fortunately, most of the people who've commented on the article seem to be a similar opinion.


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

I'll agree with him that the X-Files standalone episodes were great, but the whole story arcs that went throughout were "filled with rubbish" as he says.

However, Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of had the opposite affect. I'm not going to say the straight episodic stories were rubbish, but some of the strength of the show was that the story arcs were so well-written that it made you want to watch next week and the week after and the week after and so on.

That Baldy Fella said...

Initially, I was a fan of the X Files mythology episodes. Then I realised they had no idea where they were going with them and kept changing their minds.
I think Buffy could still throw out some stand out episodes that were unrelated to the story arcs, though, such as "Hush" or "The Body" but, yeah, for me, the appeal was the story arc, too (and also knowing that you'd get some resolution at the end of each season).

cerebus660 said...

I think I prefer The Story Arc Craze to The Godawful Reality Show Craze or The Tedious, Badly-Acted Soap Craze. Or even The Cringe-Making Talent/Freak Show Craze.

Word verification: testris. A computer game you play with your testicles?

TishTash said...

For me if there's Shit Getting Blowed Up or Ass Getting Kicked in a sci-fi show, I'm good. A great story arc is just gravy.

That Baldy Fella said...

cerebus660 - Testris sounds pleasurable yet snaggy.

TishTash - Also, ninjas, pirates or sexy aliens are also good. And sexy ninja pirate aliens win everything.