Into the Wookies

I’m currently reading Into the Woods by John Yorke, a treatise on storytelling  and story structure, by an author with extensive experience writing for British TV. It’s a well written and interesting book, one which gives you plenty of food for thought, even if you find yourself questioning the author’s theories. I encountered one such moment early on, and it irked me enough to write this post. It’s when Yorke turns his attention to the Star Wars films, while discussing the concept of “resolution” in classical story structure, and isn’t particularly complimentary in his analysis (emphasis mine):

“The resolution is the final judgement after the battle. If the heroes have overcome their demons, they are rewarded. ‘Hugh Grant’ learns to be assertive, James Bond saves the world — both get the girl. Often the story ends in some kind of sexual fulfilment — although even in mainstream cinema there are some interesting anomalies. In Star Wars Luke should really end up with Princess Leia, but she turns out to be his sister — his reward for vanquishing evil is fame instead. Such a subversion may go some way to explaining the film’s phenomenal success: it’s very sexlessness makes it digestible to children of every age — but perhaps its placing of fame on a pedestal above love says something too about the values of the society that both spawned it and still continues to nourish its success.”

Now, I’m a geek, but not an ardent fan of Star Wars. I think the prequel movies are uniformly terrible, have no interest in any of the fandom or expanded universe stuff, and of the original trilogy, I think The Empire Strikes Back is the only unreservedly great film. That said, I think Yorke’s analysis here is inaccurate and unfair. He doesn’t seem familiar with the plot of Star Wars,  and is using a  half-remembered version of it as a stick with which to beat cultural traits he dislikes, namely infantilism and glorification of fame. It’s a shame because, whatever its flaws, Star Wars does contain some interesting subversions of typical story beats that actually work against those traits.

The most obvious error in the above quote is the assertion that Luke’s reward for vanquishing evil is to be famous. This is, frankly, a bizarre claim. By the end of the first film, Luke has achieved a certain notoriety within the rebellion by blowing up the Death Star, he gets a medal and everything, but he’s no celebrity, just a successful pilot. At this point, we might expect him to continue on this trajectory, becoming a famous war hero and leading the rebellion, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, his story in films two and three takes a turn toward the smaller, more personal and spiritual.  He leaves his comrades in the rebel alliance, journeys to Dagobah to meet Yoda and learn some Jedi stuff, and eventually discovers that the enemy he is fighting is in fact his own father.

In the third film, Luke’s arc again has nothing to do with fame, and nor does he achieve any. He plays little meaningful role in the battle to blow up the second Death Star, except to jeopardise it when Darth Vader senses he is on the rebel shuttle. His story is a personal one. He overcomes the temptation of the “dark side”, of giving in to evil, and in the process succeeds in his aim of  redeeming his father. To claim this arc is inspired by or rewarded with fame is untrue — it is the exact opposite. Luke sacrifices almost everything out of paternal love for a man he has every reason to despise. At the trilogy’s conclusion, he watches, alone, as his father’s body burns on a funeral pyre, while elsewhere his friends celebrate their victory. He returns to the party, an almost unnoticed figure on its sidelines, and even there he is distracted by (literal) ghosts. If this is a depiction of fame, it’s a gloomy one, to say the least.

There is subversion here, but in a less vacuous direction than Yorke suggests. Luke, the character who begins the story as the apparent hero, becomes a darker and more ambiguous figure, preoccupied with his personal struggle, and is mostly incidental to how the world is eventually saved. Instead, his heroic and romantic role is gradually supplanted by the character of Han Solo, who himself changes, from a selfish pirate to a responsible soldier of the rebellion, during the course of the films. The romantic arc between Han and Leia that informs much of the second film also discounts the idea that the Star Wars films are sexless. It figures less in the third film, but not as a result of juvenility. Even if  elements of Return of the Jedi, such as the Ewoks, are aimed at children, the story of the protagonists by this point in the trilogy is about maturity.

When the protagonists are all reunited in the third film, their feelings of selfishness, desire, jealously and animosity that have bubbled throughout the previous movies are now sublimated by the jobs they have to do in the rebellion, in particular its final battle to destroy the second Death Star. Only Luke retains a personal agenda. Again, any idea that the Star Wars films glorify fame are undercut by how all they participate in this battle. They are clearly important lieutenants within the rebellion’s forces, but they are not commanding its fleet or giving heroic speeches, if anything their overall importance appears to have lessened since the end of the first film. Leia is just a soldier here, not a princess giving out medals. They are all following orders within plans laid out by others, assisted by many comrades. And their reward for vanquishing evil is simply the chance to enjoy their lives in peacetime, free from tyranny. Plus Han Solo gets the girl, of course.

It can be difficult to separate Star Wars, the cultural and commercial phenomenon, from the Star Wars trilogy of films, particularly when the former is so overpowering. Nonetheless, I think it does a disservice to those films, and the people who made them, not to consider them objectively, instead of in light of what they became, and what they inspired. They are messy, flawed works of art, but they deserve to be judged on their own merits, not those of the society in which they were made.


How I Met Your Mother’s Corpse

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the finale of How I Met Your Mother.

Warning: This post also contains me taking a mediocre TV show far, far too seriously, and writing way more about it than is sensible or healthy.

I thought I was done being affected by sitcoms. I still enjoy them, but I’ve not really felt moved by one since I binged on season 2 and 3 of The Office USA, years ago. Nevertheless, the final episode of How I Met Your Mother managed to move me, albeit not  in the way I expected, or it seemed to intend. The reaction elsewhere on the web has been… mixed, to say the least, and while I’d love to offer a contrarian opinion and say it was a triumph, I can’t. Frankly, I hated it.

Now, there are already people saying that the very fact that it was controversial proves it was a success. It’s better to inspire love and hate than indifference, right? Well, maybe, but to end nine years of television with a show that most of your fans loathe seems a pyrrhic victory at best. I watched the finale with an unpleasant mixture of cringing discomfort and accumulating mortification, and unfortunately that’s likely to be my lasting memory of the show, not the often decent laughs it provided on the journey there.

Despite its hour long running time, the finale felt rushed and incoherent. Having spent an entire season dragging-out Barney and Robin’s wedding, the show dispensed with their marriage in a matter of minutes, before charging through the next few years with indecent haste. By the time the divorced Robin was getting weepy over Ted at a Halloween party, it was painfully obvious where the story was going, and it was just a matter of watching it play out through gritted teeth.

Instead of a sweet send-off, high drama, or a bittersweet farewell, the episode had the feeling of a death march. Of a show lurching step by step towards an ending creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays decided long ago, and refused to budge from no matter what. And as it lurched, it stepped over the corpse of its own fans goodwill. Over the corpse of several seasons’ worth of character development for Barney, Robin and Ted. And finally, most offensively of all, over the corpse of the Mother herself, who had to die so Ted could realise his enduring desire for his best friend’s ex-wife. Ick.

The decision to make the Mother a semi-regular character for the final season was a brave one, and well rewarded by the casting of Cristin Milioti who did a wonderful job of making solid a character who for years had only been a plot device. But Tracey McConnell was not well served by what should have been her story as much as Ted’s. In the end she was just another road bump in Ted’s journey to reenact the ending of Definitely Maybe. Six years deceased, and her widowed husband can’t even tell their children the story of how they met without making it all about his ex-girlfriend. Not they seem to mourn her any more than he does, choosing only to encourage him to get out there and start hitting on his ex again.

And that was where How I Met Your Mother Ended, with Ted back at Robin’s window, just as in the pilot, clutching a blue french horn. Circularity can be a powerful theme in fiction, but here it felt like arrested development. Like hack writers trying to wrap things up with meaning, only to end up squandering what meaning they had managed to accrue over the years. The show seemed to want to be about the highs and lows of lives well-lived, but instead it ended like a ghoulish, nihilist nightmare: People fall in love and get married, but then they settle into miserable middle age in jobs they hate, or get divorced and impregnate nameless women. People have careers and become famous and leave behind their husbands and friends, but are never happy. People get sick and die, and nobody cares, not their children, and not their husband, who is more interested in jumping back into bed with his ex.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I didn’t like this episode of television. Not in a love-to-hate way. Not in a let-debate-its-merits-forever way. But in the way that it was gross, offensive nonsense, horribly misjudged in every respect. The only silver lining is that I’m not alone in this opinion, and so the creators are likely to spend the next few years having to try and defend and justify it to all and sundry. If that’s the kind of controversial finale they were going for, then mission accomplished, I suppose.

Anyway, Game of Thrones is back next week. I suspect a disappointing end to an average sitcom will be long forgotten by the time first bars of that theme music blare out. Hell yeah.


Facebookulus Rift

I was as surprised by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, and so was everybody else, it seems. That somebody bought them isn’t a surprise, especially with Sony stepping up its competitive consumer VR efforts, but Facebook probably wasn’t anybody’s most expected suitor. They weren’t anybody’s favoured suitor either, judging by the apoplectic reaction to  the announcement amongst many (most?) gamers and VR enthusiasts. Myself, I’m ambivalent. I can understand concerns about Facebook’s policies towards its users and third-party developers, but I also think that if you put that aside, then Oculus stands to gain a lot from the deal (beyond the immediate pay day for the founders and investors, obviously). And I also think consumer VR in general stands to gain, regardless of what happens to Oculus and the Rift in the long term.

It’s easy to imagine a nightmare “Facebooked” VR where you have to sign-in to FB to use the Rift, and your experience is repeatedly interrupted by inducements to ‘like’ and ‘share’ your current activity, and invitations to go play Candy Crush VR with a guy you met once at a work conference eight years ago. In fact, there’s probably an amateur film-maker or two working on viral videos that portray this ‘Facebook VR’ doomsday scenario right now. Similarly, restrictions on the Oculus platform could place onerous demands on third party developers to use and integrate Facebook’s services, hampering their ability to innovate or build truly independent products.

However, as cynical as Facebook’s policies towards their users and their platform are, I don’t think their management is so stupid as to immediately ruin a nascent and potentially highly lucrative new platform. Remember, Facebook beat Myspace because, when it first appeared, it was a far, far better experience, with a lot less bullshit. Just like Twitter didn’t include promoted tweets until they got big, and YouTube was ads-free for years. The management of these companies know that intrusive branding, advertisements and tie-ins are toxic to the initial experience. Once the platform has achieved critical mass, then they start to introduce these elements gradually, but not before.

In the short to medium term, I don’t think Facebook will mess too much with the Rift. They’ll be smart enough to remain mostly hands-off until consumer VR really takes off, but during that time Oculus will get some huge benefits that would not have been available to them if they remained independent. Most importantly, they will have a basically infinite supply of cash with which to hire talent and build custom hardware components. The latter is of particular importance. The new wave of VR was bootstrapped as much by the mobile phone industry as it was by crowdfunded cash, but relying on the vagaries of a separate, fast-moving industry is a dangerous situation to be in. Mobile phone screen sizes and technologies are constantly changing, and not necessarily in a direction that fits with the needs of VR. Likewise components such as cameras and accelerometers.

Oculus now have the scope to order their own components to their own specifications, such as ultra-high-resolution screens. That’s good for them, but also for other, smaller VR companies. Because once there is an established manufacturing base, other VR startups may be able to piggy-back on Oculus’ suppliers, in the same way that they piggy-backed on those of the mobile manufacturers. If consumer VR became a success, specialist manufacturing would have appeared eventually, but this means it could happen far sooner than it otherwise would have.

The second benefit is that Facebook’s infrastructure also presents a great opportunity for Oculus to experiment with large-scale VR experiences. John Carmack has long talked about his dreams of a “Metaverse” – an immersive, massively-multi-user alternative world. VR hardware can provide the immersion, but you will also need some serious computing power to host the servers themselves and make them accessible worldwide, and Facebook’s experience with data-centres and large-scale availability could be very beneficial there.

Finally, Facebook’s deep pockets should allow Oculus to price their initial products more aggressively, in order to quickly build a mass market. The sooner consumer VR is a proven technology, the sooner more companies will get serious about competing, and the faster the industry will progress. The eventual winners out of all of this may be Facebook/Oculus, Sony, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely. The first movers are rarely the ones who dominate an industry, but they’re necessary to get things started, and the more capable their initial product, the better, because it sets the standard that their competitors have to meet.