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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Nov. 27, 2005

Arch Foes and Nemeses…Enough Already!

As regular readers know, The Supreme Plasmate has taken ill. So, just to keep the ball rolling, yours truly, his brother, has decided to chip in with an editorial this week ('cause we know how ya all like your bi-monthly dose of off-kilter opinions). Yeah, I know, his pieces are better but, hey, I literally churned this out at the last minute, so be kind and suck it up, dudes. And hopefully, he'll be back soon. Until then...heh heh...I've got the floor...

North American TV is going through one of its periodic surges of interest in the fantastic, with this season seeing a slew of series on major networks featuring decidedly ubernatural subject matter -- Surface, Threshold, Invasion, Supernatural, The Night Stalker, The Ghost Whisperer and probably a few others. Whether any will last, or whether, like usual, this will be another brief explosion that blinks out as fast as a firefly’s tail, is still unclear. The Night Stalker was the first casualty (and though, in my opinion, it was an ill-conceived remake of the 1970s cult semi-classic, I still think it was a stinky thing for the network to cancel it in the middle of a two-parter for those who were enjoying it). And now word is Threshold may not be far behind (just for the record, Surface -- what I’ve see of it -- is my personal favourite and the one I’m rooting for).

An essay could probably be written about this mini-trend, but today I’ll look at something else. You see, I wasn’t a big fan of Threshold (other than little person actor Peter Dinklage who seemed to be putting more shading and nuance into his performance than the material demanded and stole every scene he was in…and most of those he wasn’t, too). One of the problems I had was that the premise -- covert US government team battles secret alien invasion -- was kind of, well, repetitive. Every week it’s the same enemy doing basically the same thing for the same (albeit unclear) reason. And it got me thinking about something my brother, Blair Latta (the guy who normally writes these essays) once reminded me about; how, years n’ years ago, when we first saw the Empire Strikes Back, and weird things seemed afoot on Cloud City, we were a bit disappointed when it turned out to be…Darth Vader and the evil empire.

Seems odd, doesn’t it? I mean, the Star Wars movies were all about the battles with Darth and the evil empire, so who else should it be? But having grown up with Star Trek (boldly going and all that to strange new worlds -- operative word being “new“) and maybe even the Star Wars comics from Marvel (which expanded the Star Wars universe a bit) we had been hoping for something new, some diversity, a surprise. I remember as a kid becoming a bit bored with the TV series Battlestar Galactica, because every week it was cylons, cylons and more cylons. It wasn’t till years later that I watched the series in its entirety and realized they did introduce other threats as the show progressed -- in fact, though not wildly credited, BSG may have originated the idea of a sci-fi series (later popularized by Babylon 5, the X-Files and others) that featured a story arc, with episodes and characters developing as it went. And the new Battlestar Galactica is no more varied in the recurring foe department (and even worse, actually).

They often say that a good hero needs a great villain, and that’s fair enough. But they also say moderation in all things. Sherlock Holmes’ arch foe, Moriarty, dredged up almost any time someone does a pastiche of the great detective, only actually appeared in one or two of the original stories. Likewise, Conan pastiches have created recurring nemeses like Thoth Amon and Thulsa Doom -- yet I’m not sure in the original stories by Robert E. Howard did such characters recur much. Tarzan had a few recurring foes…but they usually only stuck around for a couple of novels. Shiwan Khan has, likewise, become so associated with the Shadow that he has been featured in various comics and the (quite good) 1994 movie…yet I think the last descendant of Genghis Khan only appeared in a couple of the original Shadow pulp novels! The vast majority of Star Trek novels seem to feature either Klingons or Romulans…yet those races only actually appeared in a handful of the TV episodes.

And that becomes the paradox. Recurring villains are fun -- they help add to the iconism of a series, providing a secondary touchstone beyond the hero, and when used sparingly they can be interesting precisely because they have a history with the hero, adding extra nuance to their encounters. And where would the original Battlestar Galactica be without those scanning red eye lights and the metallic voices intoning: “By your command.”?

But at the same time, recurring villains can rob a story of freshness, of true surprises; you can’t have a mystery where you wonder what’s behind the villainy if every time it’s always the same foe. Likewise, recurring villains make for kind of one-dimensional stories, as recurring villains tend, by their nature, to be bad guys -- operative word, bad. In the original Star Trek series, when the characters encountered a person or alien, the viewer had no idea if the character might be a friend or foe and, if the latter, at least be shown to have legitimate grievances. But in, say, the current StarGate: Atlantis…the villainous wraiths are, well, villainous wraiths. No surprises or character nuances need apply -- we aren‘t waiting to learn why these characters are what they are.

Recurring foes also can make for stories that are hard for a new audience to get into -- if much of the drama of a story is based on past history between hero and villain, the story will have little dramatic resonance for a new audience. Of course there are exceptions. One of the best regarded of the Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan, revolved around a returning foe -- that’s where it got its power. But now imagine if Khan had cropped in half the original episodes, and a few more of the movies. Suddenly the Wrath of Khan wouldn’t have been half as dramatic, as overuse would’ve dulled the character.

One could argue recurring foes are part of the bigger trend that long ago swept comics, and is now threatening to swamp TV series, and even movies and novels. And that is series that revolve around recurring plot threads and story arcs, that aren’t really meant to be understood by the casual fan, and where no one episode is really meant to stand alone. In the original Star Trek series, episodes were like mini-movies, but in modern series like Star Trek: Enterprise, StarGate, etc., episodes are meant to be no more ambitious than this week’s instalment. Granted, story arcs and recurring foes can make for great epic drama, and I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of that…but I also think Buffy’s episodes, even when couched in a larger story arc, were often strong stand alone stories as well. Still, Surface, the current series that I kind of like (remember?), is very much a serialized drama where each week’s episode is no more than a chapter in the story arc. So I’m not dissing the idea entirely. But I can also get bored when I turn on a TV show, waiting for it to intrigue and entertain me for an hour…and it becomes pretty obvious that half the references are to things that took place in other episodes and little thought or human drama has been invested in tonight‘s episode!

But back to arch foes… If one wants to look for meaning (and I suppose I should, just so we can all pretend this is a deep and thoughtful op ed piece, and not just a fan boy rant), one could argue that recurring villains are endemic of a desire to present the world in simple black and white terms. They comfort us by presenting villains who we don’t have to question, who don’t make us grapple with real world issues like: is a thief a selfish sociopath…or a victim of systemic poverty? is a terrorist a homicidal lunatic…or a reaction to political persecution? Batman comics have long since identified the Joker as clinically insane…but that’s not so we will pity him, or hope the doctors find the right combination of anti-depressants to help him become normal -- no, it’s so his actions can be as irrational and horrific as the writer wants while the fans scream for his blood! When StarGate: Atlantis gives us hissing wraiths who live off human energy, the heroes can shoot ‘em and curse ‘em and do whatever, and we are presented with a simplified conflict where the enemy truly is a monster -- unlike the real world where enemies are just flesh and blood with hopes and dreams like the rest of us. And that might be fine if meant as escapist fun, except that in a lot of modern pop culture, there is a desire to present these stories as having serious, thoughtful undercurrents. In other words, they give us gee whiz, one-dimensional recurring foes…and then use these foes as though they’re somehow reflecting real life social and political issues. Which is kind of troubling, when you think about it.

Simplified fiction can, unfortunately, make us forget how complex reality is. So we wonder why it’s so hard to distinguish friend from foe in the so-called war on terror -- when in sci-fi shows, the villains belong to specific alien species, or are monsters, and a quick DNA scan can tell you who the bad guy is. Or why we need bother with trials to determine a person’s guilt -- when in comics, it’s always the Joker or the Penguin who invariably leave convenient clues identifying themselves.


I remember once as a kid humming and hawing over two Batman comics on the stands -- one featuring arch foe Two-Face on the cover, the other, an unknown, original adversary. And I decided to buy the one featuring the unknown foe, precisely because I already had a couple of Two-Face stories -- I wanted something new! (To be honest, a little later that other Batman comic was still on the stands and I bought it, but, hey, I bought it second!)

Look, I like recurring foes -- where would Flash Gordon be without Ming? Superman without Lex Luthor? But a little moderation can be a good thing. I like pizza, but I wouldn’t want it every night.

In some respects I’m in the minority, I realize. After all, recurring villains are used because story tellers think that’s what the audience wants. And maybe they‘re right...but I also think they’re employed because it’s easy, and such lack of freshness can be problematic…just ask the makers of the maybe soon-to-be-cancelled Threshold.

D.K. Latta (sitting in for Jeffrey Blair Latta, editor and Supreme Plasmate)

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