Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Quick One


Yeah, there’s no getting rid of me. That’s the inevitable consequence of having no job and an ego the size of Russia. It’s also the result of trying to cover as many facets of a problem as fairly as possible. Today I want to discuss the flipside of last entry’s topic: the skillful use of magic to avoid damaging the verisimilitude of a story. For that, I’ll be using a pivotal moment from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek spin-off with probably the most stellar and ambitious episodes of the saga.

Give or take a few.

Part 1:  In the Hands of the Prophets
The franchise began adding fantastical elements to the Star Trek universe with the character of Q. The writers made sure that the episodes in which Q appeared were self-contained, comical, or character studies, because if they allowed Q to play a bigger role, it’d be a matter of time before his omnipotence interfered with plot mechanics.

They also made sure to get rid of all stupid headgear.

…for a while.
DS9 tried something similar with the Prophets. In DS9’s first episode, the protagonist, Commander Benjamin Sisko, is identified as the Prophets’ Emissary, a Moses-like figure, the man whom the Prophets have chosen as their spokesperson and corporeal agent.
It was easy to forget this aspect of the show since the writers devoted one episode a season to it during the first half of the show’s run. This was most likely a manifestation of the same common sense that guided the writers of TNG. You don’t want to give divine entities too much time in the spotlight or make the plot too dependent on them. In the words of Ronald D. Moore: “The wormhole aliens/Prophets have to be used sparingly or they’ll become too pedestrian.”

Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice on Battlestar Galactica.

The ultimate test for this approach came in season six, at the climax of “Sacrifice of Angels.” In this episode, the Federation’s expansionist counterpart, the Dominion, is on the point of bringing in reinforcements that will turn the fortunes of war against the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Just as everything is headed for the crapper, Sisko flies his one ship to tackle the large Dominion fleet inside the wormhole where the Prophets live. Rather than let their emissary die, the Prophets intervene and make the Dominion fleet vanish into thin air, assuring Sisko that, eventually, he will be punished for forcing their hand.

But it was we who were punished.

As much as I always loved that episode, the nagging part of me couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t some blatant deus ex machina. You can read Ira Steven Behr’s thoughts on the matter. In fact, you should read his two cents on the matter because we happen to have the same opinion: it isn’t a deus ex machina.

In order for it to be one, it would have to be unexpected and contrived--that is, constrained by no laws to speak of. As I said earlier, the special relationship between Sisko and the Prophets was established right off the bat. It was thanks to Sisko that the Prophets allowed interstellar travel through their wormhole. In Season 4’s “Accession”, when Sisko started shying away from his religious role, the Prophets saw to it that he quit balking and embraced his religious authority once and for all. He, in turn, stepped up to the plate a year later during the events of “Rapture”, when he used his clout as Emissary to keep the Bajorans (the alien race that worships the Prophets) from joining the Federation, thus saving them from destruction at the onset of the Dominion War.

When chance allowed the Prophets to do away with the Dominion reinforcements in “Sacrifice of Angels” it was only natural for Sisko to demand they intervene and for them to oblige (however grudgingly). Any other outcome would have run contrary to everything that had been established so far. Everything followed logically from what had been established throughout the series’ run.  

If the writers had decided to end the war with this story arc (as they originally intended), I would have been less forgiving. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. The war went on and had to be won through sweat, tears, and blood, as any other war.

Don’t read this the wrong way, though. Any scenario that includes Prophets, Q, or whatever divine entity you prefer is very delicate, and even when you handle it with kid gloves, it takes something away from the story. Part of me wishes that the writers had come up with a different way to handle the reinforcement fleet. I’m sure the Americans would’ve loved that God or whoever had winked the Germans out of existence at Omaha, and that the Soviets would’ve welcomed the same miracle at Stalingrad or any other engagement on the Eastern Front. That they prevailed over impossible odds with sheer stamina, ingenuity, and bits of luck is what makes their accomplishment all the more fantastic.

And their losses all the more tragic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is nothing wrong with using magic, but you can’t simply spring it on the readers to resolve plot complications. It should be regimented so it doesn’t spin out of control. That way the author can shine a light on what is truly magical and awe-inspiring in any plot resolution: the human spirit meeting a challenge with strength and ingenuity. Arbitrary solutions cannot and should not be a substitute for that.

Part 2: Weren’t You Supposed to Be Talking About History, Too?

Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about that. But I needed to get the introductions out of the way first. From now on, I’ll be devoting one part of the blog to covering historical topics and another part to commentaries on A Song of Ice and Fire and probably The Wire to compare and contrast distinct storytelling approaches (focused on execution and content as I described them before) that can make or wreck a long-running series.

The historical pieces will illustrate what I said in my first entry about using history as a source of terrific content for the fantasy genre. So if you guys thought I’d already gotten started, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Epilogue:  All fans of DS9 owe it to themselves to check out Abigail Nussbaum’s retrospective on the show. Trust me, you won’t regret it. She’s guaranteed to have spotted things you never even considered.  She’s also written a handful of first-rate essays for you TNG fans out there.  

These essays are priceless and well worth the read.  

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