Saturday, January 25, 2014

Painted into a Corner

 Arthur Conan Doyle had it easy. He was tired of people pestering him to write Sherlock stories so he invented Professor James Moriarty--Sherlock's equal in every way. Then threw them together in a to-the-death battle that culminates at the Reichenbach Falls.

Two years later Doyle resurrects Sherlock with a story of climbing a sheer cliff while a sniper is taking pot-shots at him. And it makes sense because that same sniper is the villain nabbed in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Not so the swells at the BBC who altered the climax of Season Two with Sherlock taking a dive off a multi-story building landing on the sidewalk for the physician John Watson to find.

I must confess that I put some thought into how Sherlock could fake his death in this fashion. And I further confess that my solutions were unsatisfactory.

To put it bluntly, the writers had written themselves into a corner--much like the fellow painting a floor finds that he's painted everywhere he might step to exit the room.

Which brings to mind tribbles. One of the cleverest episodes of Star Trek the original series was "The Trouble With Tribbles." In this story Kirk matches wits with a shady space trader, an annoying bureaucrat, and the evil Klingons. We know they're evil because they wear the same makeup as Emperor Ming The Merciless.

After Star Trek went on to syndication Gene Roddenberry went on to make movies with bigger budgets for makeup and he improved the look of his Klingons to be much less offensive to Asian audiences. They were bigger, meaner, and looked more like aliens than Mongolians.

This was highly successful and several movies spun off several new TV series. One of which, Deep Space Nine (aka Melrose Space), had a Klingon named Worf. So far so good. Somehow a plot device hurtles all the main characters of Deep Space Nine back in time to the same space station where The Trouble with Tribbles takes place.

All the DS9 humans look at the Emperor-Ming lookalikes and then at Worf and they say, "What happened?" Worf can't come out and say, "Gene had more budget for makeup." The DS9 writers had written themselves into a corner just as surely as the Sherlock writers had.

What to do?

As you know, any show as popular as Star Trek and Sherlock will generate chat groups and message boards where plot points are discussed. Audience members will posit likely solutions to plot problems such as these. The writer will have a hard time coming up with a solution that's better than any of those offered online.

On Star Trek, they had the human cast members pepper Worf with suggested explanations for the appearance discrepancy. And some of them sounded relatively plausible. Worf replies, "we don't talk about this," and ends the discussion.

It's a cop-out, but it's funny, and it works better than a lengthy exposition that doesn't quite work.

I ran a story past a friend of mine who noticed a glaring flaw in my plot. He provided a couple reasonable alternatives, but then he said, "hang a lampshade on it." And by this he meant to embrace the flaw and make it into something that told the reader you'd noticed and that you were playing it up.

Sherlock handles the same problem differently. It shows a half-dozen different explanatory scenarios ranging from bungee cords to airbags to dummies. The clever big is that after the germ of the idea is presented to the audience, one of the characters proceeds to debunk it. I can almost imagine the posting/reply cycle on an internet message board.

In the end you never get a 'canonical' explanation for Sherlock's survival. It's a cheat, but it's creative and it almost works. Or let's say that it works as well as a Dr. Who episode.

1 comment:

  1. Martin L. ShoemakerJanuary 25, 2014 at 8:02 PM

    And to go full circle: around the time of the first Star Trek film, James Doohan did a speaking engagement in Grand Rapids (it turns out he had friends here, so he visited on occasion); and when asked about the different look of the Klingons in the film, he answered: "I did that with my tribbles. They're allergic." And as funny as it was, it had a certain logic in the series as we knew it.

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