Monday, October 08, 2007

The myth of mythology

I need a hand, are you up for this? I want to know what I've got against mythology.

Let me say, first of all, that this is a very specific thing I'm talking about here: I mean mythology in a script, a drama. There's this fella - I'd call him Piers but then he'd know I think about what he says and I'm just after pretending I don't - who plainly loves mythology. I'm still not clear, am I? Maybe this is why I'm confused. In a nutshell, think about something like Babylon 5: it's got mythology up the wazoo. In smaller scale dramas you'd call it the backstory, in epics and most especially science fiction ones, it's the mythology.

I loathe it.

Let's say I've got two people in a room and they are verbally clawing at each other: does it matter that his ancestors run the bar on Altair IV and were there during Copyright Clearance Riots? Or that her ancestry goes back to the Knights Templar? It might - but I'd better bloody care about the people right in front of me first.

It'd be easy to say Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. So let's. Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. I'm not being fair, I realise that, and I'm not really trying to deny that the characters are appalling, the dialogue reeks and the stories don't exactly raise the bar. But people who love the show tell me they love the rich tapestry of its tales, the very mythology of what's going on in it. 

Only... I caught some of Deep Space Nine on the telly tonight. (Incidentally, did you notice that every single Star Trek series, bar the animated one, is currently airing in the UK? Paramount's doing well for itself.)  It happens that I'm watching the seventh DS9 season on DVD but what I caught on the TV was an early first-season one, Babel by Michael McGreevey and Naren Shankar, an episode I'm pretty sure I watched in the 1990s. And it was better than I remembered.

But you tell me, is that because the episode itself is stronger than I thought, is it that I'm going soft on the early seasons, or it is that I cannot watch it now without knowing everything that is to come? I know the mythology of the show and I can't undo that knowledge.  In much the same way, when I saw Atonement the other night I couldn't undo the novel in my head and as good as the film is there was a part of me waiting and wondering how it would pull off the novel's big punch at the end. I think it did it very well, as it happens; I left the cinema thinking I could never write a screenplay as well as Christopher Hampton. Mark you, there were several trailers before the film for movies like Lions for Lambs and I could've written that. You could've written it in the time it's taken you to read this far.

Am I benefitting, is the series benefitting in my eyes because of this known and shared mythology? That Piers bloke once told me to watch three specific episodes of Babylon 5 and I'd be a convert, so can you actually come to like any show? In a way, is there no such thing as quality and instead only longevity and familiarity?


I watched those B5 episodes, I moved on. Though I recently watched all of Brothers & Sisters and Dirt for work and if you ask me if they're any good, I'll say no but if you ask me if I like them, I'll say yes.

Unless you can straighten this out for me, I'm going to go with that bit about caring for the people in front of you first. And I want to give you an example. It's Deep Space Nine again, which is fitting and yet also probably the tipping point after which you'll forever just label me as a Trekkie. I said I've been watching the seventh season; the episode I've seen most recently is It's Only a Paper Moon by Ronald D Moore. It was arresting, absorbing, quite uplifting and at times upsetting but above all else it had me in the story throughout. That is all I want from life.

And here's the thing. This episode may be just one of 176 Deep Space Nines so of course I still know the settings, the characters -  but it's about two recurring characters. They're not the regulars, they're effectively one up from guest stars. The regulars in this one only make token appearances.

Now, this is Bad Writing(TM). A series is about your regular characters, which we could argue about another time but you know I'm right and it's basically because I'm right. Even the actors playing these guest parts agree with me. Aron Eisenberg says in an interview I've read that he was terribly excited to get this unexpected chance and his co-star, a very laid-back James Darren, just laughed and told the producers they were very brave to do it.

I'm pretty sure you'd never see this on Spooks.  I like Spooks, but it wouldn't. Hotel Babylon has guests staying and they ignite the story, but it's really always about our main characters. I like that, I agree with it.

But it worked here marvellously and I don't know: is that a validation of the storytelling about people in front of me or is it that the mythology of DS9 is so complete that minor characters can legitimately carry a whole episode?

What I do know is that the producers didn't plan to do this. They had other stories going on, the one with these two fellas was just meant to be a linking spine, almost an excuse or a framework for all the others. But in the end it was this one that mattered, so that's the only one they told. And I admire them for it enormously.

And they had about seven years' worth of Deep Space Nine mythology plus, er, what, thirty years and 600 episodes of Star Trek lore to lean on, and they didn't. Didn't do it, didn't need it. That's Tremendous Writing(TM).


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