Saturday, May 07, 2011

Serialization Visualization

I talk about serialized stories and mythologies quite a bit, and occasionally link to my previous blog post on the collapse of Battlestar Galactica's narrative as an example of what I think about the subject. But it's not enough. Not that I disagree with it anymore, I still stand behind it, but it's a little bit too specific, talking about the very specific failures of one particular show. As a general theory, however, I think that my conception of serialization, mythology, and world-building makes much more sense visually than it does in simple text.

It still requires some text for explanation, so here goes. I imagine a well-balanced show to be circular. Everything fits best in a circle; they're the most efficient use of space. Most shows have an efficient premise, but as they add characters, cliffhangers, history, and continuity, they start getting ungainly. The mythology takes over from the storytelling. It looks like this:

It's a mess. There's no plan, things get lost, forgotten, ignored, or worst of all, lose their impact because they get cut out of the story, by retcons or resurrections or whatever. This could be a chart for The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica, or it could be Angel or Buffy. The difference between the former and the Whedon shows is that the Whedon shows remembered character came before plot. Angel, especially, shifted into emotional resolution more than plot resolution after its excess of serialization in its 4th season caused problems.

On the other hand, The Wire is far more elegant:

The Wire is ruthless in focusing on the important parts of the story for each season, occasionally bypassing formerly important characters and bringing in entirely new ones. The tonal whiplash as it makes these changes can make seasonal transitions difficult, especially at the start of the 2nd and 4th seasons. However, this is necessary both to keep things fresh and to keep the show's overall world and mythology – which is huge, using Baltimore as a stand-in for the American city – working and symmetrical.

Babylon 5, for all its other flaws, also had serialization that worked, in a different fashion. Famously, it was built on a five-year plan, and the creator exercised rigid control over the story – so rigid that he wrote all but one episode over the last three and a half seasons of the show's run.

The premise and overall story for Babylon 5 – the “arc” - was universe-wide, expanding into all aspects of the setting. However, as the series started, the focus was much narrower, on the station itself. The groundwork for the later seasons was built (too) slowly through the 1st season and much of the 2nd, but it was done almost entirely on the station itself. There were hints that the story was bigger, done primarily through foreshadowing, prophecy, dramatic irony, and occasionally ominous whispers about a great evil stirring and the like. As the ambitions of the storytelling increased, it grew to fill in the gaps created by the foreshadowing.

Thus the increased complexity of the Babylon 5 story didn't feel like it was a bunch of added mythology tacked on later once the initial premise was getting tired, but instead built on solid foundations in order to increase the stakes in a satisfying fashion.

This piece is merely meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Both Babylon 5 and The Wire required a specific kind of wild ambition from their creators, which is always going to be unlikely to be duplicated. Likewise, just because a show is a mess in terms of continuity and mythology doesn't mean it can't be great. Battlestar Galactica may be structurally weaker than Babylon 5, but I'm not sure I'd actually say that, as a whole, it's worse. And Angel demonstrates that a series can go absolutely apeshit crazy with the serialization and still somehow bring it together.

However, I do think that using the visual metaphors for how mythology springs from serialization is helpful, and how I generally conceive of these things. I hope it helps to explain my point of view on the subject.


TargaryenFanboy said...

I think the two biggest mystery shows of the last decade have to be Lost and Battlestar. Their structure demands the plot and mystery to be central. But something happened as I kept watching BSG; I fell in love with the characters. They became central to the show. I'm not a TV critic and I've never heard of the term retcon (sp?) until reading your blog. I've never had a blog or anything, despite reading your blog and many others everyday. You challenge my thoughts on my favorite show ever, and I appreciate that.

I loved the finale. It was messy, and so is life. But my heart ached for these fictional characters, and I cried like a baby as Roslin died. Maybe that makes me dumb and ignorant of its problems with serialization. On my re-watch I will dig deeper and consider your great points.

so thanks

Unknown said...

Hey, if it works for you, don't me stop you. It really, really didn't work for me, but that's pretty apparent by now, I'm sure.

TargaryenFanboy said...

oh I won't let you stop me. I adore Battlestar Galactica, and I always will. But I love your thoughts and appreciate the challenge.

ps- I like the visualization. It helps. Did you ever find a place to write weekly on Game of Thrones?

Harbour Master said...

Rowan I guess I'm with you - I prefer consistency to rambling plot, even though that rambling plot is fun for awhile.

That said, I'd say the on-the-fly plot of Farscape was one of the better SF attempts out there, more in with the Whedon school of series design. Threads from the first series pan out into very big things and, even if it is a little crushed, the post-show-cancellation finale movie does bring things to a conclusion. Character is also king in Farscape - it's much more important than plot. I'll be singing my praises of that series, too, until the day I die.

Unknown said...

Although to clarify - I always prefer character to plot. Not sure it's possible for anyone to do otherwise. Consistency in character is directly related to consistency in plot quite often, though.

Take BSG, for example. Chief Tyrol was one of my favorite characters, and his scenes at the end of S2, when he's having a crisis of Cylonness, were some of the best. And they're retroactively made cheap or irrelevant by the Final Five revelation. Or the way Baltar, initially such a fascinating character, got jerked around by the plot to fill its needs.

Harbour Master said...

I think that was our biggest disappointment with BSG, too. While stories appeared to emerge from character organically in the first couple of series, plot started to bludgeon everyone into places where they seemed ill at home.

I enjoyed the complex relationship with Head Six and Baltar in the first two series but that, too, just retconned its past into "oh it was all for the greater good" when the Final Five mythology turned BSG into a series about destiny and fate, as series are want to do after Lost started plucking those chords so successfully. I always assumed Baltar would go through redemption near the end, little did I expect it to happen so suddenly. It would have been more impressive had they killed him off during the Hub episode, in a moment that almost had me sitting up and paying attention again.

Just touching Farscape again, Farscape always seems to be driven by the ragtag crew and their strained relationships. Often the cliffhangers and big moments are all about the people - despite the big picture. In the third series, and I cannot get into this without spoiling the damn thing, they use a typical SF plot device to do something you've seen before, but then push it and push it until the personal implications are enormous. This was not TNG.

I used to see SF like I saw my video games. Fun and exciting but, generally, don't give your emotions a work out. Farscape was the show that changed that for me. They would never be able to hit that high again, but the third series is etched into memory for bringing out the tears.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could post a diagram here, but I actually think that Buffy in particular needs a different style of diagram which looks a bit more like a series of nested circles all connected by a node on one side (if that makes sense). I think Farscape and Angel both used variations on that style. This as opposed to the initial diagram in your post, which I think most closely relates to Lost and BSG.

This is essentially the diagram I am thinking of:

However, The circles could end up outside eachother a bit more and end up looking like somewhat of a chain.