On arbitrariness

Last time around, in a post about Luke’s role in the Star Wars saga, I wrote about the lightsaber duels in the movies:

The lightsabre duels in the original trilogy are sort of stately and choreographed. You can see and understand what’s happening, and follow the progress of the battle. In The Phantom Menace, the speed and elaborateness were raised in the Darth Maul fight [...]. By Attack of the Clones, they were too fast to follow, and in Revenge of the Sith they are faster still, so we literally can’t see (or, really, care) what’s happening: the result is that the fights — all of them, and there are plenty — end up being reduced to a random whirls of light that continues until someone arbitrarily wins.

It’s that arbitrariness that bugs me.  You can’t tell me that, in the climactic Anakin/Obi-Wan duel on the planet made of lava, there comes any point where either one of them works himself into a position where he has a convincing tactical advantage over the other.

And this of course is why the duel is finally resolved by a moment of utter arbitrariness: Obi-Wan’s bizarre pronouncement, “You can’t win Anakin, I have the higher ground”.  The real reason that the duel ends at that point is of course not that Obi-Wan has the higher ground; it’s that George Lucas abandoned the high-ground two and a half films ago, and is now only interested in spectacle for its own sake, and he’s finished showing us all the sights he wanted us to see during that scene.

And that is why the duel is boring.  It’s also why, if I’m honest, a lot of the fighting in Buffy and Angel is rather dull, so that I sometimes find myself just waiting for the fight to be over so we can get on with the actual story.  (There are exceptions: some of the Buffy fights in particular have real structure and shape and plot to them.  But they are exceptions: that’s the point.)

But now that I’ve spotted this Plague Of Arbitrariness (hereafter POA), I’m starting to realise that it’s all around us — even in films and shows that I love.  Another example is House, the medical comedy-drama that is frankly carried by Hugh Laurie’s sequence of sensational performances in the lead role.  The nominal core of each episode is a mystery condition that one of the patients has, and which our heroes have to diagnose.  And there is no way that the viewer can possibly solve the mystery, because the solution is determined by throwing dice.  Maybe literally.  Maybe the writers roll 1d6 before writing the conclusion to each episode, and decide:

  1. It’s viral, the doctors missed it because something that they prescribed masked the diagnostic symptoms.
  2. It’s caused by drugs, they missed it because the patient lied.
  3. It’s auto-immune, they missed it because the immuno-suppressants they prescribed hid the effects.
  4. It’s neurological, they missed it because the relevant feature didn’t show up on the scan.
  5. It’s cancer, they missed it because they were too busy arguing about their personal issues to notice the tell-tale symptom.
  6. It’s a parasite, they missed it because they didn’t check the patient’s environment carefully enough.

OK, maybe they have a d8, so they can include infection and poisoning.

Another one: Fiona and I have just started watching 24.  I’m enjoying it — it’s compelling, for sure — but it bugs the heck out of me that anyone could be a good guy playing the bad-guy role, or a bad guy playing a good-guy role.  There’s just no way to coherently hypothesise based on the information the program gives you.  I’m still along for the ride, but it’s not a ride that I feel I have any control over.  Whatever happens, happens.

And a last one, this time a book: I’m a big fan of the Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books, or at least the first few of them.  The series is now into double figures, though, and it’s apparent that Harrison long ago stopped caring.  I just finished reading The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell, and really the only reason I bothered ploughing on through to the end is that I am bloody-minded like that once I start reading a book.  It takes a lot for me to abandon one part way through (though for Titus Groan I made an exception).  In Goes to Hell, Slippery Jim has a sequence of completely arbitrary adventures on completely arbitrary planets in a completely arbitrary order — I’d swear you could split the book up into its chapters, throw them all in the air, stick them back together in whatever order they happened to fall, and the result would make just as much, or as little, sense as the published version.  Jim gets captured; Jim escapes.  Vamp till the requisite number of pages is reached.  (To be fair to Harrison, he is what can only be described as 85, so if he’s not quite at the peak of his powers any more, I think he can be forgiven.)

OK, so what is the alternative?

Well, I am pleased to say that I can immediately think of several counter-examples: TV shows, books and films where there is a coherence, a narrative flow, even in a sense an inevitability about the way events unfold.

To give George Lucas credit where it’s due, the original Star Wars is a great example.  It’s not a film where X happens, then Y happens; it’s a film where X happens and therefore Y happens.  Every major beat of the story follows on from what went before and leads into what comes afterwards.  Luke buys the droids.  Therefore, he follows R2 out to see Ben Kenobi, and also therefore the Stormtroopers burn his house.  Because of those two things, he sets out to rescue the princess.  Because that’s his goal, they hire Han Solo.  Because the Millennium Falcon flies to where Alderaan should be, it gets tractored by the Death Star.  And so on, throughout — a cascade of intertwined events.

Another and more recent example of non-arbitrariness that’s close to my heart is the resolution of Veronica Mars, season 1.  When the identity and motive of Lily Kane’s killer is revealed, it seems terribly obvious in hindsight; and yet hardly anyone guesses it, even though the clues are laid out in plain sight.  (Please, no spoilers in the comments.  I’d hate VM to be spoiled for anyone.)  It left me wondering, “How did I not guess that it was Person X?”; and that seems to be true as well for nearly everyone I know who’s watched it.

A final counter-example is The West Wing.  I’ve only seen the first two seasons so far, but I’ve been impressed how naturally everything that happens in an episode seems to flow naturally from the personalities of the characters.

And this, I think,  is one of the key differences between the two recent Doctor Who regimes.  When Russell T. Davies was in charge of the David Tennant era, there was an increasing tendency to have completely arbitrary things happen.  When the Doctor is Nearly Exterminated by a Dalek in The Stolen Earth, and starts to regenerate, he points at his chopped-off-hand-in-a-jar — with the result that the regeneration stops, the hand grows into a human Doctor, and Donna develops partial Time-Lord abilities.  Why?  It just does, that’s why.

Or consider this exchange, from earlier in the same episode.  The Earth has been Stolen (clue’s in the question), and no-one knows where it’s gone.  The Doctor asks Donna if she can think of any clues, anything unusual that’s been happening on Earth in the previous months.  And so we get this:

DONNA: There were the bees disappearing.
DOCTOR: The bees disappearing… The bees disappearing. (realising something) The bees, disappearing! [...] they were going back home!
DONNA: Back home where?
DOCTOR: Planet Melissa Majoria!
DONNA: Are you saying bees are aliens?!
DOCTOR: Don’t be so daft. Not all of them. But if the migrant bees felt something coming, some sort of danger, and escaped… Tandocca!
SHADOW ARCHITECT: The Tandocca Scale!
DOCTOR: Tandocca Scale is the series of wavelengths used as a carrier signals by migrant bees. Infinitely small, no wonder we didn’t see it! Like looking for a speck of cinnamon in the Sahara, but look! There it is. The Tandocca trail. The transmat that moved the planets was using the same wavelength, we can follow the path!
DONNA (running towards the TARDIS): And find the Earth?! Well, stop talking and do it!

I mean to say, what?

Does that make even the slightest bit of sense?  What the heck is Tandocca?  Where did that come from?  I can tell you that it has never been mentioned before or since in Doctor Who — it was just pulled out of thin air.  And why would the Daleks, in stealing the Earth, use the same Tandocca Scale that the bees used in returning to their home planet?  I’ll tell you why: no reason.  None at all.  The question is not even raised, the subject is not even contemplated.  With one bound, Jack was free.

That’s a big part of the reason why I am enjoying the new regime, with Steven Moffat in charge of the 11th Doctor, so much more than the preceding seasons.  There is a logic to New New Who that Old New Who rarely had after the first season.  It feels like the sort of thing that might happen — admittedly, given the extremely unlikely premise of a mad man in a box that travels through time and space.  Whereas too much of the time, Davies’s episodes felt like the kinds of things that Just Wouldn’t Happen even if you accept the premise.

So the challenge for Moffat and his writers in the forthcoming Series 6 is to keep the sense of coherence, you might even say of reality.  To avoid having arbitrary things happen in an arbitrary order until the episode is filled up.

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20 responses to “On arbitrariness

  1. Hey. Agreed all over.

    I had the good fortune to bump into a Who writer socially. I asked what it was like to write for the show. He replied “Oh, it’s really great. Because it’s science fiction, when you’re stuck for inspiration or don’t know how to resolve an issue, you can just throw any old made up stuff in it.”

    I’m rubbish, in a typical geeky way, at dealing with conflict in social situations. I wish I could have constructively taken him to task for that and shown him why he was wrong, and convinced him that great science fiction can exist if he goes about it differently than that. But I trusted neither my eloquence nor my ability to have that particular conversation over that dinner table without making people mad or upset. So I let it lie.

    So my smile remained in place while my blood boiled. Such potential, squandered.

  2. Jonathan, you HAVE to name the name! Come on, man — who was it?

    (Obviously not Moffat; obviously not Paul Cornell.)

  3. One thing I loved about the resolution in Veronica Mars was that it’s clear that the writers knew that it was “Person X” who killed Lily when they wrote the very first episode — but from the way the arc was structured there’s no way a viewer could have guessed the killer’s identity from just the first few episodes. So we as viewers formulate hypotheses before we have a chance of being right, and then we happily ignore all of the clues that the writers sprinkle throughout the last half or three-quarters of the season. Very clever psychology.

  4. Stephen Moody

    I read the post and i can’t disagree with anything except Veronica Mars and that’s just because i’ve not seen it.

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this book but Droidmaker is a very interesting read about George Lucas and the Star Wars films. It shows how he’s always wanted technology in film making, i do think he’s gone too far in that now. Free version is here http://droidmaker.blogspot.com/2009/06/droidmaker-book-now-downloadable-free.html

    As for Doctor Who, it’s become so much better now that Steven Moffet is in charge. The christmas episode didn’t have the Earth being invaded or being blown up, just a story about how he can change one man’s life to save a few lives. Also Neil Gaiman has written one of the new episodes, i look forward to that.

  5. Jim, I agree it feels very much as though the VM killer was known from Day One. The amazing thing is that everything I’ve read about the production suggests that this is not actually the case — unfortunately I can’t say more on that subject without giving away spoilers. But it’s certainly a tribute to the extraordinary work of the writers that their work ended up giving that impression.

    Stephen: get yourself the box-set of Veronica Mars season 1. I promise you, you won’t regret it: it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen, bar none. (Subsequent seasons are also very good, but not as good.)

  6. Interesting, and I never would have guessed that the writers (or at least Rob Thomas) didn’t know who killed Lily from the get-go. A few casting details on Wikipedia do seem to confirm that, though. And you’re right, it’s no less impressive that they were able to hold things together so well given that that was the case.

    I’m curious if you’ve read anything about when they did figure it out…

  7. I have mixed feelings; a story without some arbitrariness is like a landscape painting without any randomness. Although the examples of a completely arbitrary break from the established plot physics don’t help establish any verisimilitude, either.

    Do you like “The Wire” series?

  8. And for a 70-minute commentary on Phantom Menace with a view sympathetic to your own:
    http://www.slashfilm.com/watch-this-70-minute-video-review-of-star-wars-the-phantom-menace/

    and the follow-up review of Attack of the Clones:
    http://www.slashfilm.com/90-minute-star-wars-attack-of-the-clones-video-review/

  9. mdhills: I take your point that a story in which every plot point followed directly from the previous one would become dull. Of course you’re right, some element of unpredictability is necessary. But it’s a condiment: a story made up entirely of unpredictability is like a meal made entirely of salt.

    I’ve not watched The Wire and know almost nothing about it, except that it’s very highly regarded.

  10. Hey Mike, I couldn’t do that. :-) Not Douglas Adams, is all that can be said.

  11. Stephen Moody

    Just on your recommation i just ordered series one of Veronica Mars, will let you know what i think :)

  12. The arbitrariness of the later Star Wars movies (by release date) extends to the big battles, too. At the battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor, we always know why the battles end as they do. The Rebels blew up the second Death Star because the shield got knocked out because the Rebel commandos and Ewoks got access to the bunker because Chewbacca took over an AT-ST. (Just think, if the vine had broken and Chewie had been injured or killed by the fall, the Empire might have won!) Similarly, the Rebels lost the Battle of Hoth because they simply could’t spare any vehicles or weapons powerful enough to fight more than a delaying action. Presumably they could have had a few X-Wings knock out the walkers with proton torpedoes, except that they were already short on fighters to protect the transports.

    Whereas at the Battle of Geonosis, the droids blew up a bunch of clones and walkers, and then the Republic gunships blew up a bunch of droids, and the battle was over. The Republic apparently won for no better reason than that Gunships Are Awesome. I think gunships are cool, but simply having some isn’t a very satisfying victory condition. One could say the same about AT-ATs, I suppose, except that the AT-ATs were shown to be much bigger and more powerful than anything the Rebels can field, whereas the gunships in AOTC didn’t seem to be any more durable or threatening than the bigger, fancier battle droids.

    Also, the battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor were battles of necessity, where the motivations of the attackers and defenders were clear. Once the Jedi were rescued from the arena, the Battle Geonosis seemed to happen for no better reason than that both sides wanted to fight (and on the meta-level, those toy Hailfire Droids and AT-TEs weren’t going to sell themselves!).

    ROTS suffers the most from the arbitrariness, because it’s pretty clear that Lucas knew that some things had to happen but not why. Why does Padme die in childbirth? “For reasons we don’t understand (and the man who created the story was too lazy to fill in), we are losing her.” It would have been so much better for her to have been accidentally and mortally wounded during the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan. That would have been genuinely tragic. Her actual on-screen death is just pathetic.

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  14. For those who like watching House but wonder about the quality of the medicine, Polite Dissent gives nice medical reviews for each episode (http://www.politedissent.com/house_pd.html).

  15. I agree completely, too much arbitrariness is a bad thing.

    Both Star Trek: TNG and the new Battlestar Galactica suffered horribly from arbitrariness toward the end of their runs. With Star Trek the solution to every problem in the final seasons was Subspace _____ where the blank could be anything you wanted. On Galactica the arbitrariness of “who the Hell is a Cylon now?!” BS just made my blood boil towards the end. It was completely obvious they were selecting who was one of the “final five” Cylons out of a hat. Even more maddening is that Ronald Moore’s podcasts had him crowing about how they pulled the identities of the final five out of their ass. Had they know from the beginning, it might have been epic. But what they did was totally destroy established characters to throw a “gotcha” at the audience.

    Hey, Moore wrote for both BSG and TNG, perhaps the arbitrariness is related…..

  16. To Lucas’s credit(?), some of the arbitrariness of the Star Wars prequel battles can be laid at the feet of the in-world character who was masterminding both sides in order to orchestrate his own rise to power.

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  18. re: mdhills about the Wire

    That’s an excellent point. While in Doctor Who I definitely enjoyed the flow to this season much more than the last couple (though the Rose seasons had the “bad wolf” plot line, don’t write those off as completely arbitrary), the Wire is a great example of the value of arbitrariness.

    It felt like any character in the Wire could actually be killed at any time (unlike most shows where characters’ survivability has to do with their contract negotiations), at the same time, in retrospect, many of those deaths do make sense. The point is, there are some arbitrary plot arcs that worked beautifully into the story line. Anyway, watch the Wire and see how it fits this argument about arbitrariness.

    Also, Dexter has a wonderful mixture of the arbitrary and the very rational. It’s certainly not overly arbitrary the way ST:TNG or a good many shows out there feel. Have you seen Dexter?

  19. I’ve not seen Dexter, no, and I don’t expect I ever will: however well made it might be, I just don’t fancy a show where the hero is a serial killer.

    I like what you say about The Wire. The idea that anyone might die is important. (Buffy got very good at this in seasons 5 and 6, you will recall.)

  20. If you haven’t watched ‘Love Actually’ and with valentine’s in the offing it’s not such a horrible choice, Richard Curtis did a marvellous job with the arc and I marvel at how he came up with it every time I see the film.

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