Working with Roger on our View from the Junkyard has been a wonderful experience. Our approach to reviewing episodes on weekdays and something special on weekends really offers some flexibility. The downside is when ones muse goes on vacation without hiring a backup, we can struggle for an idea. So my plan was to go with another “Doctor Who on Vinyl” but ended with something miscellaneous or potentially worthy of “6 Degrees of Who”. When I attempted to reply to an email from our dear friend, our reviewer from beyond the stars, Mr. Mike Basil in response to my thoughts about Blade Runner: 2049, I stumbled on another idea. I actually wrote the reply, then scrapped it when a new idea came to me like a crossbow bolt fired out of the blue…. Like a shark popping out of a cat… like a salt vampire emerging from the body of an old girlfriend… like a police box materializing out of nothing… like a… well, you get the idea! It was a sudden realization and it hit me hard enough that I thought I’d share this observation!
What made Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep so good? For that matter, what made all the original stories by those early science fiction writers so good? Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, PKD, Bester… they all wrote books that had something that never seems to come across as well on screen. When I started my review of Blade Runner: 2049, I think I had a revelation. All of those founding fathers of Science Fiction have something in common: they are “idea men”. They all came up with these incredible, mind-blowing ideas. And the books developed those ideas creating these memorable concepts that we love and remember with fondness from a golden ere. But for some reason, they rarely make it to the screen with anything approaching that level of memorability. I believe that in order to translate an idea from book to screen, there’s something needed that can’t be added if it was not there to begin with because it changes the focus from the idea to that other thing. What is the other thing? Character.
By which I mean a character or characters. The visual medium needs a strong character which then becomes the vessel for telling the big idea. Look at Neo in The Matrix: big idea, carried by a character who learns to be more than he was. If you saw The Matrix, you know Neo. Ripley from Alien, or Taylor from Planet of the Apes – if you saw the movie, you know the name. Can the same be said for Ryan Gosling’s character in Blade Runner: 2049? (Mind you, I just saw this movie this week!) It may also be why horror movie characters (like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger) are so well loved while far better horror movies like The Changeling (George C. Scott’s one, not Angelina’s) are forgotten. The movies, like the aforementioned The Matrix or Alien, are carried by strong characters. And Planet of the Apes is very different from the book. I don’t know anyone who ever praised the book, but the movie is incredibly memorable and that’s because Taylor is the medium to convey the big idea. He carries us through it.
Blade Runner: 2049 was a good movie. It has some stunning visuals, interesting ideas, but I don’t care if I never see it again. If I were flicking through the channels and found it, I’d keep going. Not the same for Alien or half a dozen other movies. (I’m not really looking at sequels here, because they typically end up being money-grabs and fall short of the original, with rare exception.) I felt the same after the original Blade Runner as well. The characters are very shallow, one-dimensional. Should they fall into a pit on the planet Marinus, they would be cardboard cutouts! Jared Leto, an incredible actor, is a very one dimensional villain with no motivation or explanation of character. Was he blind? What were those things that followed him around? Harrison Ford is only a draw for the movie because he’s Harrison Ford! He gets only one decent line in the whole movie. Ryan Gosling was probably given a single page of lines and told to memorize them and he’d be ready for filming, but the movie was three hours long! He is never built on; we have very little reason to care for him or what he goes through. Then why do you say it was good? Because the concepts were interesting. There’s a scene which really drives home that what you perceive is truly your reality. It’s brilliantly executed. But I would argue that we could have had that same thing done on an episode of Star Trek to far greater effect. And why? Because there are characters to drive the idea home. A book can do that with or without the character but a movie or TV show cannot. We need the strong character to make the story flow.
Take a second and look at Douglas Adams epic work: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We are introduced to Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect; they carry everything. We see the destruction of Earth and all the crazy events that follow and we love it. It was a book before it was a movie/tv show, but it had the characters and when it was translated, it still retained the memorable qualities, maybe a bit pale by comparison but those characters made the series. Never has lying in front of a bulldozer seemed so wonderful! A far better example is his other, slightly less known, work: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Both books were brilliant but so were both versions of the show (UK and US*). Dirk is hilarious and the outrageously strange set of circumstances they find themselves in (and I do mean outrageous) still stand out as top notch viewing. (My wife even watched all 8 of the US episodes and loved it, and typically she would cringe at such outré situations!)
There are a number of shows that converted well from book to TV but typically, those are the ones with the strongest characters. Look at The Walking Dead, now entering its 8th season. It started as a graphic novel, but has such an ensemble of characters, that we keep tuning in even though the cast is really going nowhere and circling back through the same themes week after week. Game of Thrones also started as books but they have so many deep, dimensional characters, and most of us are counting down for when the series will be back! But it doesn’t have to be a book to create great characters. Babylon 5 truly blew my mind when I watched it and there is not one character that does not get fleshed out and people you think are the “bad guys” at the start, turn out to be far deeper and more intriguing than that. Star Wars, Buffy and Firefly, Dark Matter and Torchwood: these are all character driven stories. Some are little more than fun sci-fi romps, some are deep philosophical journeys but what we take away from them is a sense of awe carried on the shoulders of the characters we love.
Which brings us around to our Junkyard, where a blue box stands as home to the most enjoyable character of them all; certainly the longest running. He has been crotchety and whimsical, a man of action and a man teetering on the brink of sanity. He’s been vulnerable and caring, and aloof and pompous. Sometimes mysterious, other times comical, spewing convoluted malapropisms masking a much greater wisdom. He’s been an Edwardian gentleman and an angry, battle scarred warrior. Frequently quirky, often funny, always intelligent, and a mix of outlandish, noble, childlike and wonderful, the Doctor can travel through any medium bringing his own brand of joy and hope everywhere he goes. He has lived in print, has been heard in audio stories, and has been seen in plenty of videos. He has even had an “Experience” to bring old friends together. Over time, I hope we investigate all of them to some extent!
I know, because my observation works for me, does not make it an end-all, be-all assessment. Plenty of people are calling Blade Runner: 2049 the best movie of the year, so maybe I’m in a minority, but I think the lure of Gosling, Ford, Leto and Wright carries power on its own and we see movies like this because we like these actors, not unlike the characters of our favorite series. But for me, I need the strong, characters to draw me in and make me want to come back for more.
This post will mark the half-way point of October. We will be entering more frightening places as the month progresses. Let’s hope we have the strength of character to deal with the dangers coming, and that we always have that police box standing in the junkyard to offer a safe haven for us when we need it. ML
*The US is more faithful to the storyline, while the UK is more faithful to the character, but both are absolutely brilliant!