Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Firing Chekhov's Gun
I spent most of my first 50-odd years reading, reading, reading. I'm still doing that, though less frequently offline. It's a vision situation, coupled with a lack of stuff I want to read. Since I spent many of my adult years, however, both offline (while the internet wasn't invented yet, you whippersnappers) and often far, very far, from a television set, I find myself exploring dramatic media increasingly these days. The pleasures of Netflix and www.archive.org are manifold: I can enjoy film and television commercial-free, and I can 'read' the stories from a writer's viewpoint, while enjoying often amazing performances by skilled actors.
This, of course, is because I don't watch Jason Statham. (I only threw that in to annoy our film critic.)
It's a lot of fun to watch TV series, one episode after another, instead of having to wait a week between showings. You see, you can say to yourself, 'Gee, how are they going to get out of THAT? I'll bet the villain tries this trope, and then the hero tries this trope, and then the writer shows up with deus ex machina number 42, and. . . And then you can watch 'the exciting conclusion', and find out if you were right. As I said, much fun.
TV series have come a long way since the days of the Penny Dreadful. Or have they? We all remember the classic story of the editorial team who visited the 19th-century serial writer in hospital. 'Quick!' demanded the editor. 'I know you have a broken leg, but you can still wield a pen. You left Jack tied up and gagged, and about to be thrown off a cliff. None of us knows how to save him!'
The experienced serialist takes up his pen and writes, 'With a single bound, Jack was free.' Ayup.
Lately, I've been catching up with Deep Space Nine, that Star Trek wonder set on a space station near a wormhole in the Alpha Quadrant. I'm really enjoying it – even more so as I get an enormous chuckle out of all the religious references many Trekkies are probably not aware of. Sure, they 'got it' when Sisko broke the tablet and the two aliens came out. But do they see how The Sisko's relationship with Kai Winn mirrors the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees? I wonder.
Having a bunch of Celestial Prophets wormhole aliens who exist out of time and space is a really useful form of Chekhov's gun. You remember, the literary device where you have an artifact, gizmo, or whatsit introduced early on that you can use to solve the problem. As Chekhov (the writer, not the Ensign) pointed out, once you've hung that gun over the mantelpiece, it must be fired. You've gotta use it, or else why is it there?
The really cool part of serialised scifi is that you don't need to have placed Chekhov's gun over the mantelpiece in the first place. Not when you've got time travel. You can go back and stick it in later. This is really a really cool way to get out of tight spots – you've got prescient aliens, so use them. They're literary arms dealers, the Chekhov's gunrunners from the wormhole.
How does this work? In Season 6, I think it was, the writers need to precipitate a crisis that will eventually a) close the wormhole to outside traffic (temporarily), b) make the Bajorans mad, and c) represent a setback for Captain Sisko, who will have to retreat to Planet Earth to regroup. We know this, because the producer has confessed that this is what he instructed his writing team to do. Here's how they solved the problem:
They remembered that the Prophets controlled Time.
Sisko is The Emissary (much to the discomfort of agnostic Starfleet), so any time his name pops up in a prophecy, he has to listen. Lo and behold, an archaeological dig on the planet Bajor has suddenly turned up a mysterious tablet, 25,000 years old. And it says, er, 'Hi, Emissary.' Boom. Sisko's just got to go and figure out why the wormhole aliens are waving at him from the distant past.
We appreciate the elegance of all this. In order to get the character's attention, the aliens, who after all could have merely sent him a Galactogram, elect to plant an archaeological artifact that, by impressing the religious Bajorans with its antiquity, would get everybody's attention and cooperation. Or, more accurately: the writers elected to plant this antique artifact in order to entertain us and avoid pointless exposition. They could do this because it was a scifi story, it was their scifi story, and darn it, they needed a plot device.
Like I said, I'm thoroughly enjoying this. See what you can do with temporal mechanics and some technobabble? I can't wait to find out all the interesting answers to my burning questions: Will Odo and the Founders recover from the mysterious morphogenetic disease? Will those evil Section 31ers get their comeuppance? Will Gul Dukat finally go completely berserk and Satanist before being eaten by the Pah-Wraiths? Will Joseph Sisko ever reveal his gumbo recipe, perhaps to his grandson, writer Jake?
Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that when the (iso-linear) chips are down, our heroes will be able to reach for the technical manual entitled, 'Time Travel the Starfleet Way'. And, with a single bound, Jake will be free.