The Steep Approach to Linkadale

Standalone vs. Serial

So it seems that Heroes is killing Lou Anders’ love of episodic television:

What [Heroes is] doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they’ll run a “To be continued” and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can’t figure out when they decide something is “to be continued” and something isn’t. I think it’s just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don’t have one at the end and start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.

I am actually very disturbed by this.

Because that’s how most television has been written since the medium’s inception.

I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can’t watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren’t up to today’s standards. My excuse was always that it’s the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too — they are really neck and neck for my affection and it’s probably just that I’m more into comics than history that puts Heroes ahead — but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.

What I’m realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I’m not sure I can go back.

To put it mildly, I have some problems with the value judgements being made in this argument. Before I get to them, though, a quick defining of terms: by “episodic”, I am assuming Lou is talking about series in which installments can be treated independently, even if they are embedded in a larger continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was an episodic show, although it became less so as it went on (to its detriment). I’m going to call the non-episodic format “serial”, by which I mean series like 24. You can watch, say, “Band Candy” with minimal knowledge of previous Buffy, and it’ll work fine. You can’t do the same with episode 13 of the fifth season of 24. The term “arc”, I would argue, is somewhat meaningless when applied to a serial show, because in a serial show there is only arc — there’s no “non-arc” for contrast.

Next up, areas of agreement. Television drama — or at least US television drama; British tv has certainly had short self-contained serials for as long as I can remember — evolved primarily as an episodic medium. More recently — again, particularly in the US — there has been a shift away from episodic storytelling and towards serial storytelling, although I don’t agree that Heroes represents anything more than, at most, an incremental advance in this trend. (And believe me, I like Heroes a lot.) I don’t know how long the current absurd practice of an October-to-May “season” punctuated by sweeps months and periods of hiatus has been operating, but you only have to look at the way shows like Buffy would “save up” showpiece episodes and/or big plot developments for November, February and May to see how it’s affected the structure of US shows, to the point where the decision a few years ago to start the season of 24 in January and run straight through — without breaks! — to May felt genuinely radical.

This, not unnaturally, leads to the assumption that a given number of episodes in a season are filler, just there to make up the numbers. I think this is a deeply suspect assumption, but I also get the impression it may be one of the factors that leads to Lou talking about Heroes as an example of narrative sophistication: a series where every episode is essential is obviously superior, right? But that’s not the part that really gets me: what I object to most are the assumptions in the idea that Heroes is an argument against “the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.”

On any given day, my list of favourite Buffy episodes — which of course I’d argue is representative of the best episodes — would include “Lie to Me” or “Earshot”, possibly both; my list of favourite Angel episodes would include “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”; my list of favourite Farscape episodes would include “…Different Destinations”. My list of favourite West Wing episodes would probably be comprised almost entirely of standalones, because with a couple of exceptions (end of season two) that show didn’t do much serial storytelling. All of the episodes I’ve named start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end. But “Lie to Me” is the finest articulation of Buffy‘s core morality the show ever produced, “Earshot” possibly the finest articulation of the high-school-is-hell theme; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is a devastatingly powerful story about, among other things, race in 1950s America; “…Different Destinations” is arguably the best televisual time travel story of the past decade; and The West Wing never failed to deal with whatever issue it chose in a thoughtful and engaging way. Put bluntly, the point is this: an hour (or rather, 45 minutes) is plenty of time to tell an interesting, powerful, self-contained story.

Nor is the difference between the individual episode and the serial one of sophistication, any more than the difference between a short story and a novel is one of sophistication. That’s an imperfect comparison, but the basic point is easily demonstrated: probably my favourite Firefly episode is “Out of Gas”, which has a narrative that weaves between three time-frames with an almost breathtaking economy and grace. It is, by any measure, a sophisticated narrative. Heroes hasn’t produced an episode to match it yet — even “Company Man”. I would go so far as to say that Heroes taken as a whole doesn’t match it yet. Certainly serial storytelling has qualities that episodic storytelling can’t replicate: an accumulation of detail, a more sustained period of engagement with the tale. But consider Battlestar Galactica, which has been alternating unevenly between periods of serial storytelling and periods of episodic storytelling since its inception. The serial episodes are, almost without exception, the better episodes of the show (the creative peak is probably the start of season two), but — though I’ve seen the suggestion made several times — the disparity has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the two types of storytelling. Serial is no easier or harder to get right than episodic; they’re different skill sets. So the problem with Galactica is not that it’s turning out standalone episodes, it’s that it’s turning out bad standalone episodes — ones that do offer too-easy answers, that rely heavily on melodrama, convenience and cliche. Serial storytelling is just as easy to do badly: look at Lost. If I wanted to, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could construct an argument that the pleasures of serials are often ultimately simplistic, familiar, consolatory pleasures — but I don’t want to, because that would be just as much a misrepresentation as the idea that a serial is more “sophisticated” than a standalone.

I feel a little weary typing all this, because I’ve been coming across variations of Lou’s argument more or less since I came online. One of the most succinct rebuttals I’ve seen in that time is, perhaps not surprisingly, by David Hines, from his review of the Angel episode “Through the Looking Glass” (the penultimate episode of the second season, while they’re in Pylea). As it happens, I think “Through the Looking Glass” is an odd choice to use as a defence of the principle, since it’s part of a mini-serial, just a mini-serial that appeared less related to the show’s larger continuity than many people would have liked. But on that principle, I think Hines is dead right.

Did I enjoy the Darla/Dru arc? You betcha. Have the writers stepped away from that a bit for more standalone-ish episodes? Yeah. Is there anything wrong with that? Nope. I enjoy story arcs as much as the next guy. But there’s something more important than story arcs — and that’s telling *good stories.* I don’t care what ANGEL tells stories about, as long as the show tells good stories. If the writers felt inclined to make season three an all-standalone year, that would be fine by me; many of ANGEL’s very best episodes (even this season) have been standalones, and I’ll take a story like “Untouched” over one like “Redefinition” any day of the week. Other shows, including one from Mutant Enemy, have gone story-arc crazy and suffered. Give me a good tale well-told any day.

An Interstitial Sceptic

Via Christopher Barzak, there’s a blog for Small Beer’s forthcoming Interfictions anthology, including (so far) the table of contents and excerpts from an interview with the editors, Theodora Goss and Delia Sherman.

I commmented over on Chris’ blog that reading the interview made me start to understand the allergic reactions some people have to the term “slipstream“, because I found it an increasingly frustrating experience. Given that I’m an advocate of the usefulness of slipstream as a descriptor, and given that most people seem to lump the two terms together anyway, this may seem surprising. The difference is that I know what people mean when they say a story is slipstream, or I can find out. To put it crudely, if they’re Bruce Sterling, they mean a story that generates a certain effect; if they’re Rich Horton, they mean a story that disturbs a familiar context with fantastic intrusions; if they’re James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, they mean a story that uses certain techniques and narrative strategies. We can argue all day long about which of these definitions is most useful, which identifies the most interesting set of stories, but they are all, to an extent, testable.

It’s hard to judge Goss and Sherman’s descriptions of the Interfictions stories without actually having read said stories — though I expect that, like Feeling Very Strange, Interfictions will be a strong collection, independent of whether you agree with the frame it’s presented in. But “Interstitial”, at least as Goss and Sherman are using it, doesn’t seem to work the way that slipstream works. The descriptions of slipstream above are bottom-up: if a story has these characteristics, maybe it’s slipstream. The descriptions of interstitial that Goss and Sherman give are dreadfully vague, and tend to be top-down: this story is interstitial, but why?

Q: Did you have a particular definition of interstitiality in mind before you began reading the stories?

DORA: […] interstitiality has been defined in so many ways, at various forums where Delia and I have discussed the concept, that I wanted to forget my own definition, to say to the writers, I’ve asked you for an interstitial story. Now show me what you think is interstitial. […]

DELIA: What I began with was less a definition of interstitial fiction than a short list of things I felt I knew about it. An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions. An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative and style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances. These things are true, as far as they go. But the other thing I know is that every interstitial story defines itself as unlike any other.

Perhaps a better way of approaching the subject is to look at the overall aim of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which is to promote “art that doesn’t fit neatly within recognised categories of genre or marketing”. This, it seems to me, is only a useful aim if you’re more concerned with the commercial restrictions placed on a given mode than with the mode itself; or to put it another way, it’s an aim that seems more useful for writers than for readers. If I were a writer, I might be reluctant to be labelled, because a label is reductive, and I know my work has many aspects. As a reader, I have a preference for stories of the fantastic, but I don’t care whether they’re labelled as such or not; I’ll pick up Against the Day and Nova Swing, both of which chafe against their assigned labels, in the same shopping trip. So as a reader, the “interstitial” label is barely useful — it’s tempting to say, “ok, name three books that do fit neatly within the categories of genre and marketing”. And as a reviewer, I’d never consider using it; part of a reviewer’s job is description, and “interstitial” is a smokescreen. By definition, even more than other labels, it avoids the specifics of what a story is doing, the details that make it interesting.

Links Are Not A Violent Subject

From Last Night

Your discussion points for the day, drawn from discussions at last night’s BSFA meeting, on the subject of Awards:

  • Does the sf field have too many awards, or do they all serve valid audiences? Which awards would you get rid of?
  • Is a shortlist more valuable than a final award, as a guide to what to read? At what point does a “recommended reading list” get too unwieldy?
  • Should an award recognise what seems most vital now, or what seems most likely to last? Is there a difference between the two?
  • In theory, juried awards take a longer/more contextualised view; does this mean they have a better chance of getting it “right”?
  • Juried awards — allegedly — tend to favour compromise candidates. But is that a bad thing? If a book is the second-favourite book of the year of five different people, isn’t that in itself a strong recommendation?

The other notable part of the evening, for me, was receiving a small pile of old back-issues of Vector, dating from the early eighties, courtesy of Mark Plummer. Back then, the magazine was A5 and had a cover price of 75p. I was particularly excited to discover a copy of Vector 98:

This is the Vector of the month of my birth. It contains articles by Chris Evans and Simon Ounsley; book reviews by Paul Kincaid, David Langford, Roz Kaveney and others; and a transcript of a Novacon Guest of Honour speech by Chris Priest, on what’s wrong with science fiction:

The only thing wrong with science fiction is the “science fiction” label, and all the misbegotten attitudes that have arisen around it. We are all aware of the close-minded attitudes from people outside the sf world who have not read the stuff … we know that their dislike of science fiction is based on ignorance and prejudice. My point is that there are similar attitudes within the field, just as ignorant, just as prejudices, yet they are mostly invisible to us because they appear to be on our side. These internal ignorant attitudes will eventually destroy the freedoms fo creative writers, unless they are exposed for what they are.

Science fiction writers are blessed with many valuable things. They have an active, intelligent and open-minded readership. They have a successful commercial framework within which to work. The “science fiction” label conceals a multitude of sins, but it also provides a liberal framework within which to write. New writers are still being actively encouraged. There is room for the experimental story, for the avant-garde, for the work you can’t easily pin a label on. All this is valuable, and, as far as I know, unique in modern publishing. I say to the remarkable men and women who are my colleagues: write up to the level of your audience. Make life difficult for them. Give them autonomous, demanding novels. Stimulate them and entertain them. Don’t listen to the Loser del Ray-Guns of the world, don’t settle for the imaginatively second-hand, for the easy sequel to your first success. You’re not writing for beer-money, you’re writing for minds. Put your language first; language is the test of reality, the medium of ideas.

EDIT: And I’ve got to quote this section from the same speech, on sf critics:

Then there are the critics, who divide into camps of such extremism that neither side knows where the other lot are.

Doctor Johnson once said: “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” So it is … but whether we like it or not, sf needs responsible criticism.

Writing is an art, and criticism is the natural companion to art. It defines and shapes it, it interprets it, it sets standards, it provides an overview of what individual writers are doing, it provides a context of intelligent debate. Original work can survive withuot it, and can of course be appreciated without it, but responsible criticism enhances art.

Science fiction critics are usually one of two sorts. There are those who have discovered that sf is literature, and have promptly gone barmy. These are the academics, who come to science fiction from the comfortable security of a chair at a university. There are a few good academic critics, but most of the criticism I have seen from academics has been pompous and narcissistic, apparently written with no love of literature, just a desire to impress.

The other lot are the crowd-pleases, the likes of Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe, who shy away from criticism and call themselves “reviewers”. They claim to know what the common reader enjoys, and from this position of arrogance and ignorance parade their subjective opinions with all the certainty of the closed mind.

Neither kind of critic is worth a damn. They say nothing to the writer or the reader, and neither is able to join a larger debate.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. There are some perceptive critics in fandom, who are not showing off, who are not trying to agree with anybody and who write with honesty and insight. And the British magazine Foundation has a well-earned reputation for clear, unpretentious criticism. But this simply isn’t enough to form a body of critical work. There should be a sufficient amount of sf criticism that there is disagreement amongst informed critics, that there is a continuity of debate.