Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Arc of Truth: Part 2

Part 1.

Back in the United States, the early 1980s saw a change in the attitude of TV networks towards serialised television. This had been heralded by the arrival in 1978 of the glossy prime-time drama Dallas on CBS. Although technically a recurring series (divided into seasons of approximately 25 episodes per year), Dallas employed storytelling techniques more commonly encountered in much cheaper soap operas, with complex character relationships and long-running storylines spanning many episodes. Dallas was so successful that ABC launched its own derivation, Dynasty, in 1981. Both shows went on to tremendous success.

Also in 1981, the storytelling techniques of these shows were applied to the genre of the cop show. Steve Bocho and Michael Kozoll, Hill Street Blues differed from previous cop shows in that it did not focus on a 'crime of the week' format with the investigation and resolution of a criminal act being neatly packaged in 45 minutes. Hill Street instead had a number of different storylines unfolding across its seasons, with some stories self-contained in a single episode, other plots taking several episodes to come to fruition and some larger plots unfolding across and between seasons. The series also heavily focused on more realistic issues and stories with less interest in the cliches of genre television, and significantly less emphasis on 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. Hill Street proved enormously influential, with many shows picking on its storytelling devices. Bocho's own subsequent project, LA Law, took many of Hill Street's storytelling ideas and applied them to the court drama genre with great success, whilst St. Elsewhere applied a similar story arc structure to a hospital drama format (culminating in the infamously surreal final episode of the series).

In 1982, although with far more limited popular success, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker developed Police Squad!, a comedy series starring Leslie Nielsen as cop Frank Drebin (and, famously, Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln). The series was designed to deliberately target the cliches of cop show television and indeed seemed to delight in annoying the syndication channels by including a reference in every episode to every previous criminal case Drebin had investigated (so at the end of the sixth episode he name-checks all five previous criminals arrested in the five previous episodes). However, it is fair to say that it was probably Hill Street Blues that had a bigger impact on the rise of the arc show that followed.

Still, whilst shows like Hill Street were a big success, the more traditional episodic model still remained the norm, although recurring storyline elements were now slightly more common. Whilst the hugely successful Miami Vice was a big hit with its mostly episodic structure, some subplots (such as romances or the progress of a lead character's divorce) did unfold over multiple weeks.

In 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation commenced airing in first-run syndication. With the show being sold immediately into syndication, there was even greater pressure than normal not to include ongoing story elements, but nevertheless some crept into the show. The pilot episode established romantic tension between Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi, and between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher, and the hint of a suggestion (later thankfully forgotten) that Picard was actually the father of Crusher's son Wesley. Other early character points established included Lt. Worf's difficulties with being the first and only Klingon in Starfleet, Lt. Yar's difficult and painful upbringing causing problems with her attitude and Data's wish to become human. For the most part these elements were kept firmly in the background and brought forward only when needed for a particular episode, although Picard's slowly growing acceptance of Wesley Crusher competence and the latter's development into a full crewmember did qualify as a story arc of sorts.

A more ambitious arc was set in motion halfway through Season 1. With the new 'main' enemy, the Ferengi, not working out as planned, the writers decided to introduce a considerably more dangerous threat, an insectoid alien race who would incorporate a hive-like intelligence and ferocious appetite for consuming technology. These aliens would be established late in Season 1 as a growing threat that would also reintroduce the Romulans to the Star Trek universe after a lengthy absence. The original plan was for Season 1 to end with these new insectoid aliens launching a failed attack on Starfleet HQ, followed up by the Romulans and Federation coming to the brink of war due to the alien machinations, with the aliens being 'outed' in the Season 2 opener and the Federation and Romulans joining forces to defeat them once and for all. However, the prohibitive cost of the planned alien effects and then a writer's strike between Seasons 1 and 2 that led to the crippling of most of the second season effectively ruined these plans. The first episode became an unrelated stand-alone called Conspiracy, the second (The Neutral Zone) relegated the alien threat to a remote and vague rumbling of problems on the horizon and the third was dropped altogether, replaced by The Child, an old script for the abandoned Star Trek: Phase II project from the 1970s which introduced Guinan, a new and highly enigmatic regular character played by Whoopi Goldberg.

However, this 'pipe-laying' for an abandoned storyline nevertheless proved to be beneficial later on in Season 2. With the aliens behind the attack on the Neutral Zone colonies still unknown and Guinan's background still a mystery, the writers re-introduced the alien threat in a different (and cheaper) guise, as a race of cybernetically-enhanced humanoids called the Borg. Guinan's race was revealed to have been almost destroyed by them. With the Borg now aware of the Federation's existence, it was made clear that they would now be coming to destroy and assimilate the Federation, and periodic references were made throughout Season 3 to the Federation preparing new weapons and defensive measures. These were put to the test at the end of Season 3 when the Borg invaded the Federation in full force, annihilating a Starfleet battle group in the Federation's greatest military defeat in its history and assimilating Picard.

18 June 1990. The day The Next Generation finally stepped out from its predecessor's shadow.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had successfully transitioned from a purely episodic show into one that, whilst still mostly consisting of stand-alone episodes, was no longer afraid to reference previous episodes and employ real character development. It's story arcs were still unplanned, but the writers were able to use the wealth of history and backstory to generate new storylines that gave rise to the feeling of a much more connected whole. The benefits to this form of long-form storytelling was made clear in the Season 3 cliffhanger ending, The Best of Both Worlds, still widely regarded as the finest episode of Star Trek in its history. The use of a cliffhanger ending to a whole season, with the audience left reeling and anxiously discussing the show and waiting for its return over a whole summer, was a major success and quickly became something The Next Generation and its spin-offs (and later their rivals) used every year.

The Next Generation's embrace of this story-telling technique also allowed writers to pen episodes that weren't necessarily fully resolved at the end, with elements left open to set up future 'sequel' episodes. An early fan of this technique was a young staff writer named Ronald D. Moore, whose fourth episode, Sins of the Father, saw Lt. Worf dishonoured in the eyes of the Klingon Empire and forced to bear the shame for a crime apparently committed by his father. Worf discovered that the crime was actually committed by another Klingon noble family, the Duras, but this fact emerging would tear the Empire apart in civil war, so he accepted the dishonour for the sake of peace. This was obviously an unsatisfactory arrangement, and in the Season 4 episode Reunion Worf became a blood-enemy of the Duras family, leading to his alliance with their rival for the Chancellorship of the Empire, Gowron, and to the outbreak of full-scale civil war, in which Worf finally regained his honour and name. Moore orchestrated most of this storyline, writing Sins of the Father, Reunion and the Redemption two-parter, forming a single coherent piece of drama and character development that unfolded over two years (and, four years later, would later be revisited in Deep Space Nine).

A scene from Twin Peaks unusually not dripping in deep symbolism and visual clues to the show's central mysteries. Also, note a surprising lack of cherry pie in this shot.

Star Trek: The Next Generation proved to be a vanguard of a new wave of arc-based shows that finally began moving the format to the norm in the early 1990s. Twin Peaks, developed by David Lynch, was a massive success, with the gradually unfolding mystery of who killed Laura Palmer enthralling millions of viewers each week across the world. The symbolism and surreal imagery of the show was debated in numerous magazine letters pages and on very early Internet message boards. The show also built up a notable 'mythology' of creatures, characters, entities and recurring storyline elements. The benefits of Twin Peaks' 'myth-arc', with its fiercely loyal, obsessive fanbase, became clear. However, a weakness of arc-based storytelling also became clear. The casual viewers, although fascinated by the Laura Palmer mystery, were less intrigued by the secondary storylines. Once the Laura Palmer mystery was resolved early in Season 2, audience figures plummeted and the show was cancelled, leaving the hardcore fans frustrated with the ending (that saw the main character apparently trapped in some weird other dimension).

Whilst Twin Peaks' fate proved one possible headache caused by arc-based storytelling, another was demonstrated by the CBS show Beauty and the Beast, which ran from 1987 to 1990. In an updated version of the fairytale, Linda Hamilton played a district attorney named Catherine who discovered the 'world below', a group of people ostracized from society living a secretive life in tunnels below New York, whilst Ron Perlman played Vincent, a large disfigured man who became Catherine's protector. The first season comprised stand-alone episodes with the development of Catherine and Vincent's relationship as an ongoing story element. This element came more to the fore in Season 2, as did the arrival of recurring villains. Beauty and the Beast's key weakness was exposed, however, at the start of Season 3 when Linda Hamilton elected to leave the show. Catherine's violent murder and Vincent's quest for bloody vengeance proved a development more than the show could sustain, with a drop in audience numbers and cancellation swiftly following. Interestingly, one scriptwriter and producer on the show who was credited/blamed for the shocking death of a key character was a guy named George R.R. Martin, whose frustrations with the creative limitations of television led to him starting to write a novel a few months after the show's axing, a novel in which the key character is also unexpectedly and abruptly killed halfway through...

"So, is our show going to have a happy ending?"
"George R.R. Martin is one of our writers. What do you think?"
"Oh yeah."

Despite the relative failures of Beauty and the Beast and Twin Peaks, arc-based storytelling became more and more popular. NYPD Blue, a successor of sorts to Hill Street Blues, began airing in 1993 and also featured a reuse of the earlier show's use of short, medium and long-running storylines. Another cop show airing on NBC, Homicide: Life on the Street (based on a book written by a Baltimore reporter named David Simon), also featured similar storytelling devices in its attempt to depict crime and police work in a much more realistic manner than previously attempted.

1993 also proved to be the year that the story arc in science fiction television really kicked into overdrive with the arrival of The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and apparently the first TV show, SF or otherwise, which had its story arc developed and pre-planned in full beforehand. This show was called Babylon 5, and we'll pick up on that next time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these posts - it's a fascinating history of something I know very little about.

I think that two things are really important to mention (and I suspect you will, when you get that far):

- firstly, some of the best shows are now what I would call "through-written", where the whole series forms a single arc, and where there's clearly been a lot of writing done before they start. The earliest major example I know of is "24" (if, as is sensible, we refuse to admit that it had more than one series); "The Wire" is probably the apotheosis of this trend. Where series try to use arcs but don't through-write, I think it's quite off-putting - a major reason why the new BSG gets worse and worse is that it fails to deliver on its promises of through-written character arcs, with characters like Starbuck and in particular Baltar making big character progress before mysteriously regressing when the plot demands it. [I'm currently watching the final season, and am particularly pissed off by what they're doing to Baltar].

- this newfound complexity is probably possible due to DVDs. There is now an expectation that DVD boxed sets will be almost the primary form of the show, with the serialised TV episodes being just a taster to excite the critics an give people an idea of what the show is like. This enables shows to turn into, essentially, incredibly long films.

I wonder, incidentally, whether The Wire is indeed the modern version of Dickens - not for its brilliance, but for its transitional role. Dickens wrote in serialised episodes, and was only later read in compiled book form; now, serial stories are unusual. I wonder whether serial/DVD shows like The Wire are similarly a transitional phase toward longer, more novelistic series in the future. Will there come a point where we start buying boxed sets of shows they didn't bother showing on TV?

Anonymous said...

I do think that pre-planned arcs are key to making quality programs and that programs should have (and stick to!) a game plan from the beginning. It becomes clear very quickly when an initial arc has run its course and the writers lose site of the original design just to prolong a show's life (I'm think of the later years of almost every high school based show ever made) OR when they don't have a game plan to begin with and so end up weaving about with no real goal in mind (Lost!)

It's a problem because networks clearly want to keep a show running for as long as it pulls in viewers, but the quality often slips quite noticeably over a long run. 24's first season was brilliant, but I've found it less engaging every year since as it stretches credibility to the breaking place.

The other major problem is network cancellations of shows due to low ratings. Firefly is the obvious example of a show that clearly had well planned arc that was never allowed to come to completion, but networks other than Fox have done it too. Deadwood, the Pretender, Twin Peaks...they deserved an ending rather than just a cliffhanger. I wish that there was some alternative funding and viewing scheme for these shows so that they could have a chance for completion.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget about Murder One. That was pretty influential and showed you could have a full series arc without the need for any contained single episodes to go alongside it.

Adam Whitehead said...

MURDER ONE will be mentioned :-)

I must admit I didn't expect this thing to go on so long, but now I'm thinking it will be four parts. The next covers BABYLON 5 (an essential touchstone for any discussion of arc-based TV shows), DEEP SPACE NINE, the early Whedon shows, MURDER ONE and the problems THE X-FILES ran into due to its arc not being mapped out ahead of time, and I imagine a last part bringing us up to date with BSG, LOST and THE WIRE. Should be interesting.

Tree Frog said...

VW - DVDs? Perhaps you mean VHS, and even then, I think the different kind of ease and difficulty that a meta-story brings to writing a television show, plus syndication and rebroadcasting in sequence had a greater effect than VHS.

What's such a disappointment for The Wire (and I say this as someone who owns every season of the show) is that the creators were SO conscious of the long-running stories during the first four seasons, but okayed the truncation of Season Five. Which screwed up the resolution to the stories we'd been loving before.

That truncation made the last season kind of suck at times - the newspaper arcs were far too prominent and what got cut out was probably schools-related or Michael-related. THE IMPORTANT SHIT, SIMON YOU EX-NEWSPAPER HACK.

And the series should have ended when Dukie got out of the car. Who needs a montage with a Pearlman-Daniels cutesy scene? Pbblllthh...