Friday, December 28, 2007

Over-examining one line

It's fashionable for actors to say they chose a role because of the script.  But they only say that in pre-release promo interviews; when it comes to getting an award, they will still thank the director for creating such a great role.

And I can understand that. To be callous, the director is more likely to get the actor work than the writer is. But also the actor and director will have worked together much more closely than writer and actor, writer and director, writer and stationery supplier. 

I'm considerably more troubled when an actor says the script is the thing and then you see it really isn't. It can be that his or her specific role was good, that it was something that truly stretched them, and that it was something that looked great on the showreel. And it can all be bollocks: saying you made your choice because of the script makes you sound good. You've got options, it says. You're a team player because you're thinking of the whole project. You're smart. You didn't just say yes because you needed the money.

Saying that one thing means all these others, and that'd be fine but it can mean it without you actually having to have read the script at all. It's definitely applied now almost regardless of whether the script is good or not, so while there are times I believe it's true, I really think this is a case where specific praise from a star can actually devalue writing. When an ordinary, average script gets Harrison Ford praising it, what does that tell new writers to aim for? And when the script editor knows solely the ten key points from Robert McKee's point of view - and believes there actually are rules to writing - then we are ultimately losing out.

Follow. My mother gets genuinely annoyed when she can't instantly follow something in a drama. Why are they lying? What does he want? Who does she mean? When we first saw Martha Jones in Doctor Who, the Doctor appeared out of nowhere in a plot point neither we nor Martha fully got until the end. My mom would've been spitting for an hour. And I think it's because the majority of her TV drama watching is soap. Nothing wrong with soap but when it's your only diet and when the TV industry believes soap is the exclusive route for new writers, then there's a lot wrong. And a symptom is this inability to lie. Soap characters lie constantly, just not to us: they can smile at their enemy but they must immediately gurn Airplane-like to us so we know.

I prefer it when we don't know. Or at least, I can prefer it. If it's done well, not-knowing something is as good as knowing it. Recently Battlestar Galactica showed us various scenes that we'd previously only ever heard about in reported speech; somehow, contrary to all expectations, the telling proved to have been more powerful than the showing.

And I like it when there's an agreement between the writer and the viewer about what's important. Doctor Who always has this and has it with exuberance - except for a tiny part toward the end of this year's Christmas special:

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

Astrid was driving a forklift truck (which, incidentally, if you don't happen to know already, is really quite difficult to do; difficult enough that you need a special licence to prove you're able to do it). She's aiming to drive Max and his chamber off the edge of the platform. But they're deadlocked and one of Max's robot Hosts frizbees a metal halo at Astrid, pranging it off the truck.

And I keep thinking about Russell T Davies's choices at this point. Logic suggests the Host should've hit Astrid but that would be too violent an end. And it would be the end: the plot would've stopped because she died and Max survived. So he must have the Hosts miss, for both reasons.

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

With those words, the Doctor is back in the game, he's effectively told us what's going to happen, and he's made sure Astrid knows the stakes. Our main character is deep in the action instead of solely being held off to one side. That's got to be good, hasn't it? There are British television series that tell their writers the show is really about the guest characters, not the regulars. (This accounts for why their regulars are so dull. Unfortunately the guests are no more memorable.) But here, the Doctor is key and even as Astrid sacrifices herself to save everything, it's the Doctor we're with. His reactions. So I can't fault that line.

But I do. It tipped me out of the story. I'd accepted the existence of the truck, I'd accepted that Astrid could drive it, I didn't accept that the Hosts had cut the brake line. I've not the remotest idea where such a thing is, but I couldn't take either the coincidence of a lucky shot or the idea that it was a deliberate action. Coincidence is too much, I feel you only ever get away with coincidence at the start of a story or when it is the story. I have a piece that relies upon almost endless coincidence but I believe it works because almost none of it really is coincidence, you just think it is. And you even see coincidences that aren't actually there, so I'm happy with that.  And I'm not happy with the idea of a deliberate choice to cut this bleedin' brake line because that really isn't a sensible alternative to killing Astrid. 

How bad would it have been to drop this line? Pretty bad, actually. Not only would the Doctor's part in it be reduced but Astrid's would've been changed: where she knew what she was doing and what it meant, she would instead have a nasty shock when the brakes failed. So the Doctor would be out of it and she'd be Frank Spencer: I can see why Russell T Davies went the way he did.

Only, I think there was a third way. I can't solve the issue with the Doctor even though I've thought about this a lot. Nonetheless, if you took out that line of dialogue about the brakes, you could've still had Astrid driving up to the edge of the chasm. She's pushing Max, he's pushing her, they're right on that ragged edge, I think you could have Astrid realising what the consequences of an extra shove would be and her deciding to do it anyway.

The trouble is that not only is the Doctor sidelined, he's sidelined for a long time, for the whole end of this sequence. It'd only be seconds, but I think it would feel too long. And I just can't solve that.

But given the choices, given how the dialogue took me out at a crucial moment, I think on balance I'd have cut the brake line.


1 comment:

Lozzie Cap said...

That line irritated me because it seemed inappropriate, intrusive, obvious and altogether rather lame. It diluted the scene. I would have been perfectly happy to see Astrid - not able to see over the top of Max's box, she being such a short-a*** - misjudge the distance and power required to shove him over the edge and inadvertently sacrifice herself instead of turning it into the melodramatic pap that it became. The slowed down Clairol advert-stylee "Nooooooooooo!" from the Doctor just made me laugh out loud with derision. I was happily waving her goodbye as she tumbled all-too artistically down the chasm.

The other thing that bugged me was the fact that, to stop a fork-lift, I thought you just take your foot off the pedal. But without further research, I do not know whether or not that is the case.