Dramatic Convenience Vs Realism (The Idiot Ball Again)
Just finished watching Season 2 of Orphan Black. I like the show pretty well, but there are a couple things that frequently seem off. Specifically:
- Everybody always seems to be an hour’s drive from everybody else. (no matter how far away they seem to want to flee)
- All the bad guys know Felix’s address, yet everybody keeps treating Felix’s loft as safe.
- For a kid that tends to do things like wander outside at night with random strangers, Kira is left unattended way, way too much.
There are other problems, too, but they’re a little more conceptual than this stuff, and I don’t think Orphan Black is unique in any way, here. Lots and lots of books, stories, shows, and movies do stuff like the above. They are choices made by the writers for narrative convenience, and they are necessary in many ways, but there is a point at which they become silly. Sussing out exactly where that line is strikes me as rather important, so let’s talk about it.
First off, there is a lot of boring things that happen in daily life. You take the train to work, you eat breakfast, you go to the bathroom, you wait for a
bus, you read through a bunch of random e-mails, etc., etc.. People sitting down to watch a thriller don’t want the pace to get bogged down by the details. So, when the DA slaps down a plea deal on the table in front of a suspect, we don’t sit there for half an hour while the suspect’s lawyer goes over it and then discusses it with her client – that’s dull. So, instead, we just sort of gloss over the fact that those things happened. Yeah, they read and discussed the deal at some point. James Bond has to eat occasionally. Yes, Frodo and Sam pooped in Mordor.
It is frustrating, for a writer’s perspective, to have people point out these little gaps. Stuff like “When does he change clothes?” or “Why didn’t she get change for her coffee?” or “I never see this guy ever cash any of his paychecks!” Had a friend of mine kindly agree to critique a story of mine once in which two survivors of an apocalypse were riding their bikes down an empty interstate highway and his question was “what happens if they get a flat tire?” So, okay, yeah – that could be explained (lot of abandoned bicycle shops out there!). All of this stuff could be explained and pretty easily. The question is, though, whether you want it explained and whether that would be a good use of limited space and time. Do we want to have a pee break on the way through Mirkwood? Do we have to watch Bruce Wayne spend his days popping in and out of charity fundraiser after charity fundraiser and shake hands and make nice and so on and so forth? Or, you know, would you rather we just skip past a lot of that and get to the Batman part? When faced with the choice, a lot of these so-called “important” questions suddenly look like the hair-splitting silliness they are.
There is a point, though, were streamlining can go too far. Getting back to Orphan Black for a second: Sarah knows Dyad is after her and her child, so she goes on the run. She hops in a car and drives…not very far, as it turns out, since when she decides to come back again she’s back in less than a few hours. Now, okay, okay – if Sarah drives clear to the other side of Canada, she’s basically left the sandbox of the world the writers have set up and she can’t be part of the story anymore unless she pulls a Varys and basically teleports across oceans and continents with ease. Viewers don’t really want a whole sideplot for half a season where Sarah tries to start a new life in a new place with new characters, etc, etc.. She needs to be close by so the plot can advance.
But, at the same time, having her stick around that close makes no actual sense. Nor does Felix spontaneously bursting into tears and going back to his deathtrap apartment (sweet a pad as it is). Sarah’s primary priority has always been her daughter above all else and Felix knows going back to his place endangers everybody (chiefly himself), otherwise he wouldn’t have gone with them in the first place, and yet they all do these silly things anyway because, if they didn’t, the plot wouldn’t work. This is sloppy, because it shows the authorial hand too nakedly in the unfolding of events. It’s pulling back the curtain on a magic trick. It’s the writing equivalent of a missed note in a recital. It maybe doesn’t crash the whole thing (as mentioned, I do like the show), but it knocks you out of the dream for a second.
Now, we can argue about how bad an offender this or that story is in this sense, but the fact is that stories often use the Idiot Ball to control action. They make characters stupider or less competent than they should actually be in order to force the plot to fit. This is a different problem than just cutting out the boring bits, but it comes from the same place: things need to be streamlined, to connect, or otherwise you wind up with a crazy unwieldy plot that you can’t handle anymore (hat tip to a lot of epic fantasy authors out there). Streamline the wrong parts, though, and you wind up with Orphan Black‘s tendency to have everyone they meet to be part of some conspiracy of some kind to track, capture, or destroy clones (which, while understandable from a structural point of view, starts to get a little silly after a while).
So what to do? Well, that’s the trick – there’s no easy answer here. The fact is that you, the writer, need to come up with plausible and reasonable ways to make sure the story doesn’t spin off its axis or mutate into the wrong kind of story. I’m struggling with this myself in the next Saga of the Redeemed novel, and it is no cake walk. However, I recognize that I need to do it and do it well if I want my story to transport and be acceptable. I don’t want to knock people out of the dream, if you follow my meaning. I have to separate the important parts from the unimportant, the easily plausible from the implausible. And I don’t ever need to explain to you when and where and why my main character needs to take a leak.
Colony and the Idiot Ball
First off, let me just say that I really like the show Colony. It has good action, a great dynamic between the main characters, an interesting mystery, and neato aliens and stuff. I am, however, getting a bit frustrated with the secondary characters. Resistance, red-hat, whatever – they are bugging me.
They’re all a bunch of idiots and shouldn’t be.
I mean, I’m fine with Will (Josh Holloway) being better at his job than everyone (given the premise of the show, he could very easily be the only FBI agent in the block), but that doesn’t mean everybody else needs to be such a moron. This phenomenon – called “the idiot ball” – is when a character acts stupider than they should probably be in order for the good guys to win. Ordinarily this behavior is restricted exclusively to the villains in a show, but since Colony isn’t terribly clear on who is ultimately good or bad, the idiot ball gets passed around a lot. Granted, I’m a couple episodes behind at this point (I just watched Episode 6), but it is clearly a trend. Let’s take each side one at a time, here. (Spoilers ahead, BTW)
The Transitional Authority
Okay, so we’ve got a brutal pseudo-fascist militocracy running things for the aliens and keeping people in line. Seems pretty bad and, honestly, it usually is. What I like about the show is that it doesn’t just pigeonhole the Authority as being moustache-twirling bad guys. They have a legitimate reason for maintaining order (dudes: the aliens will just kill us all!) and, while they may go about it in a brutal and uncompromising way, their motives make sense.
Their plans, on the other hand…well…
First question: How goddamned hard is it to find a guy wandering around the streets with radio equipment tucked under his jacket? How is Will the only person in the Authority to figure out when the transmissions are coming. Literally everyone else seems to know.
Second question: So, your esteemed leader has just executed a famous rebel and then you’re going to drive him across town with…two cars. And then you fall for the whole “the road is closed!” ploy? COME ON, PEOPLE – they’ve been doing that shit since Adam West was Batman. Nobody checks up on these things? They don’t plot out a route? You can’t give him a better escort?
Third question: Why is it Will who has to suggest watching rebels instead of just arresting them. Like, seriously, in every cop movie ever made, they do this thing called a STAKEOUT. Do they not have police procedurals in this world? The cops don’t cruise around and beat the crap out of random people until they stumble upon the guy they’re looking for by accident. Well, at least not cops who are actively good at their job.
Fourth Question: You’ve got a very, very talented asset on your side – a woman with actual CIA experience, a real killer. Your security measures for her home? Freaking ADT. Seriously, just just slaps her ID on a thing and she’s inside. No bodyguard. No advanced security. No live-in aide for her bedridden husband – nothing. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that she might be a target? It’s a little hard to swallow that an assassin masquerading as a low-rent goon could just be sitting in her dining room.
While the Red-hats are a bit dim, they are nothing compared the sheer audacious stupidity of the Resistance. Just about every plan that they try is a complete failure and they are, for some reason, flabbergasted as to why. Except it’s super, super obvious that their plans are stupid. Consider the following:
First: So, you plan on timing drone response time, but it doesn’t occur to you that hitting a food truck in a populated area might draw looters? Hmmm…
Second: You blow up a gateway to another block and you are surprised that they track down the guy responsible? Even when that guy is just hiding at his girlfriend’s house? Really?
Third: So you hit a convoy carrying the enemy leader. How are you perplexed at their possession of firearms? Why aren’t you shooting them with bullets instead of paintballs? Why is the deal you made with some lady more important than killing your enemy?
Fourth: You guys kept more than half your guns in the same damned place? Really? Really? No, seriously…really? And people just hang out there and practice shooting all the time? And nobody notices?
Fifth: Even supposing you overthrow the Authority, what the hell do you actually think you can do against the drones? Seriously, what? You guys can’t knock over a Chevy SUV, and you want to take on super alien technology?
Sixth: “Hey, our avowed enemy is in that building!” “But sir, the door is locked and there’s a girl in there we kinda like!” “Okay, I’ll need four guys only. We will go in one at a time, at intervals. I’m sure he won’t shoot at us. Our smoke grenades? Oh, they just create ambiance.”
Seventh: “We have you captured!” “Okay, I surrender!” “Where is Snyder?” “In the back.” (they go to the back, and Snyder has apparently escaped through the rear door. “Wait…there was another door? D’oh!”
You’ve got to be goddamned kidding me.
Now, honestly the idiot ball usage doesn’t really bother me that much in this show, since the rest of it is pretty good. Hell, the idiot ball is deployed way less often than it is in Doctor Who, so it hardly qualifies as a TV death knell. Still, it would be nice if somebody besides Will seemed to be using their whole brain in this show. Maybe the aliens will.
I have a feeling this post is going to be unpopular, but here it goes: Dr. Who is an unimpressive television program. I have tried – I’ve really tried – to like the show, but I just can’t stop rolling my eyes most of the time. At this point I’ve slogged my way through about two seasons – the Chris Eccleston season and the majority of the first David Tennant season – and I can’t quite see what it is that has all you Whovians hooked. It took me a little while to formulate exactly what it was that I disliked about the show, and I think I have it narrowed down. What follows is my critique, for your perusal and (possibly) ridicule, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what has so many folks obsessed.
What I Like
Since I like to keep myself fair and even-keeled when it comes to ripping up popular scifi/fantasy properties, let’s start with what I like about Dr. Who. In the first place, I should point out that I really wanted to like Dr. Who, and so these various facts were the things I kept bringing up early in the first season to defend the show against my wife, who thinks it is overall pretty stupid-though-tolerable television.
In the first place, I like the overall concept well enough – the idea of an ancient alien who travels space/time alone and helps people along the way isn’t a bad one. I never thought it was particularly amazing or innovative, per se (I mean, isn’t that the structure of about 75% of the adventure television programs ever made, just this time across space and time instead of some other more earthly setting? I mean, from The A-Team to Kung Fu to Paladin to, hell, even to The Shadow, that’s basically how they all work). It took me a while to work up the interest to watch the show, mostly because catching up with a television show is a lot of work and the concept wasn’t really calling out to me.
Then, when speaking with a friend of mine who (I presume) enjoys the show, he pointed out the thing that I did (and do) like quite a bit: the tone and the main character. I love how positive the Doctor is–so much sci-fi is all doom and gloom and it gets oppressive and miserable sometimes. I love that the Doctor actually enjoys travelling around and that, despite all the evil he’s seen, he hasn’t gotten jaded and miserable. Lonely perhaps, but not miserable. That was fun, watching the Doctor grin and laugh and joke his way through horror and mayhem. The sense of humor sprinkled across the episodes and the Doctor’s banter in general is quite good and amusing, and if I ever watch any more of the series, that constitutes the sole reason.
So, okay, enough with the positives.
What I Don’t Like
There is a good bit more about Doctor Who that I find anywhere from annoying to lazy to unpallatable, and this might take a little while. Settle in.
Charge #1: Poor Supporting Cast
Rose Tyler is a very boring character. I gather that she vanishes or dies at the end of this season (I’m not quite there yet), but whatever – she bores the hell out of me. I mean, seriously, what’s her deal? If you’re struggling for an answer there, it’s because she HAS NO DEAL. She’s a prop, as like as not. She has no desires (that I can detect), no obvious fears or baggage (well, her dad, I guess, but that’s pretty standard ‘girl with father issues’ crap and not very interesting), no compelling relationship with anyone besides her mother (who’s a much better charater, by the way, and I would have preferred to see the Doctor and Ginny galivanting across the universe in a heartbeat), no set of interesting skills or hobbies, and just about nothing else I can figure that would make her an interesting character in any way shape or form. This is only made even more frustrating by the fact that the Doctor is so damned enamoured with her. “I trust Rose Tyler” and “She’s stronger than you think” and “I believe in her” and all that crap. Why? She’s a damned blank slate, man. It’s like saying you believe in the wisdom contained in a sheet of blank paper.
In addition to this, of course, is the fact that just about every other character is a one-shot person whose actual characteristics are either glossed over or unimportant. There are exceptions, of course, in individual episodes (like that guy who founded the Doctor fan club only to get all his buddies absorbed by the ridiculous fat alien – very good character, that guy. Too bad the end of the episode made the whole thing absurd as opposed to touching), but generally the whole group is a wash. For my money, besides the Doctor, the only good characters have been Mickey and Ginny, and the show keeps shoving them aside instead of using them in interesting ways.
Charge #2: Frequent and Irresponsible Use of the Idiot Ball
First off, I appreciate very much that the Doctor isn’t walking around with an arsenal in his pocket and doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights or blow things up or kill things – true to character and a refreshing change from most TV sci-fi fare. The thing is, though, the show keeps the Doctor alive not because the Doctor is all that clever (he isn’t), but because the enemies are usually overly stupid or slow-witted or otherwise inept. If you don’t know what I mean by the ‘idiot ball’, go here – this show uses it ALL THE DAMNED TIME. Like, in just over half the episodes at least, probably more. If the Doctor is being chased, the enemy moves at a walk. If the Doctor is being threatened, their weapons don’t work or they miss or something. If the Doctor is captured, there is usually a fairly convenient method of escape that presents itself that a reasonably intelligent adversary would never have allowed. It’s RIDICULOUS.
Point in case – remember the first David Tennant episode? The one where the giant spaceship of nasty aliens shows up and gets a whole third or quarter of the Earth’s population under its control and has them held hostage? Well, generally I liked this episode (it was one of the good ones), but there were a number of things that I found ridiculous and pertaining to the idiot ball. First off, the TARDIS shows up aboard their ship and the Doctor strides out (after being revived by tea, of all things – more on that later, though) and starts talking. So, a few questions: (1) why don’t the aliens capture and incarcerate the unidentified alien who isn’t part of the diplomatic party? (2) why are all the people aboard the vessel and surrounded by hostile aliens still alive in the first place? (3) Once the Doctor calls their bluff on the Blood Control thing, why don’t they just kill him right then with their rayguns rather than have a duel? (4) Why did the aliens let the Doctor look at the Blood Control thingy in the first place, since they knew they were bluffing and wouldn’t want him to figure it out?
I mean, in all reasonable situations, the Doctor would be captured, pinned, killed, or otherwise neutralized as soon as he shows up. Don’t even get me started on the Daleks, who, for such an advanced race of killing machines, have probably the least efficient method of going about killing people ever. What is the rate of fire on those stupid death rays, anyway? Muskets fire more often, for crying out loud.
Then, of course, the Idiot Ball is fielded almost as often by the supporting cast as it is by the villains. So, I just watched that episode where the kid can draw people and then suck them into the drawings. If your kid could do that, and you knew your kid could do that, and the Doctor told you your kid could do that, and you were told not to let your kid do that, would you leave your kid alone? Even for a second? Then, even supposing you did make the mistake of leaving her alone once, would you do it a second time? What the hell, lady? It would have been one thing if that kid’s mother was meant to be portrayed as negligent, but she wasn’t, so far as I could tell. She was just spontaneously stupid becuase the idiot ball had lodged itself behind her left ear and wasn’t letting go.
Charge #3: The Doctor Isn’t Very Clever
Look, he isn’t. He’s just not all that smart. If he were, he wouldn’t need the idiot ball to hit the field quite as often as it does. For most of the episodes I’ve seen, the Doctor wins on a technicality. He doesn’t outsmart the opposition, he doesn’t overpower them, he doesn’t outmaneuver them, he just remembers something he learned once about X and then applies it and viola! “Oh, right, Blood Control doesn’t work like that!” or “He just needs a hug from his mom” or “obviously the telescope kills werewolves!” It’s ridiculous. I find myself throwing my hands up in the air more often than not and rolling my eyes.
There have been other shows that have done this, of course – Star Trek: The Next Generation is chief among them. What made TNG a better show, though (and it is a better show) is that, while the A plot designed to solve the ridiculous alien cloud or whatever was invariably solved by Data shooting some kind of subatomic particle at it and everything working itself out, the underlying character arcs at play in the B plot were actually compelling and interesting. This was done by having good characters that we liked, as opposed to the Doctor and Rose doing nothing for no reason all the time and, therefore, giving us nothing much to fall back on. We just sit there and watch, inevitably, as the Doctor whips out his sonic screwdriver and solves the problem by use of pseudo-science and xeno-archaeology. We have to accept his solution, of course, since we have no prior knowledge of what’s going on, anyway, and his explanation is as good as any, but it’s still fairly lame. The Doctor’s no genius, he’s just read more books than us. I’m unimpressed.
Charge #4: The Show Buys into the Doctor’s Mystique
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that just assumed the audience’s belief in the coolness of the main character more than Doctor Who. Let me think for a second….hmmmm…well, maybe Knight Rider or the A-Team, but since they had characters that actively earned their cool more often, I’m not certain. In any event, the show just assumes that everybody watching thinks the Doctor is the coolest thing since James Bond, and it goes out of its way to prove it. They play up his history at just about every opportunity, play eerie music when outsiders are thinking about him, and all that would be fine if they didn’t insist on having him perform ridiculous stunts like recover the Olympic Torch. Jesus – it didn’t even make sense that he would be there, let alone picking it up and running with it.
At times the show does this well, but much of the time I find myself rolling my eyes and saying ‘whatever, man – you’re just a dude who bums around the universe with a blonde sidekick, you aren’t Nelson Mandella.’ Now that I’ve said that, of course, there’s probably an episode where the Doctor teaches Nelson Mandela how to read and write or some just paternalistic garbage. Anyway, moving on to my final point:
Charge #5: It Just isnt’ that Scary
Doctor Who doesn’t scare me. Maybe I’m jaded or heartless or something, but I just haven’t found any of the episodes to be really all that creepy. That one in WW2 with the gasmask kid asking for his mummy? Eh. How scary can a slow moving child really be, anyway? That, of course, really comes down to the heart of it: why should I be scared of creatures that aren’t even all that dangerous to a dude who flies around the universe with a screwdriver and a trenchcoat? I got a trenchcoat, I got a screwdriver, and I’m every bit as smart as that guy in his magic phone booth (yes, ‘police box’, I know – I’m trying to goad you), so why am I scared again?
Well, to make a long story short (too late), I’ve found Doctor Who to be underwhelming at best and downright stupid at worst. There have been perhaps 4 episodes I’d call ‘good’ so far, and none I’d call ‘great’. The closest they came was the first Tennant episode, where the Doctor actually did something clever (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”), and past that…eh. I could take it or leave it. If Doctor Who were on television at the same time as Star Trek Voyager, it would be a coin flip, I kid you not.
The Idiot Ball: NPCs and challenge
In RPGs, there is always the question of just how much of a challenge any given NPC should be. Ultimately, most GMs want to see the players succeed in their mission, but they also don’t want to make it easy for them. If something is too easy, it isn’t any fun – there’s no tension, no suspense, no mystery whether or not success is iminent. Likewise, too hard is just as much of a bummer – nobody likes getting their butt kicked. Oh, and then, just to make things more complicated, nobody likes everything to be a challenge all of the time – it makes the game exhausting, and undermines the ‘awesomeness’ of the PCs which is the bread and butter of so many RPGs.
Then, of course, there are the GMs concerns regarding story. As anyone who has played in one of my games will tell you, I am really into story. Indeed, I think story is more important than almost everything else (well, except ‘players having fun’). I want things to make sense, push the plot forward, create conflict, and be believable. This applies to my NPCs, specifically. If the players are up against the King’s spymaster, he should be a pretty sneaky guy. As my improv training taught me, I want to behave ‘at the top of my intelligence,’ and therefore I will make him as sneaky as I can, since the King’s spymaster is probably going to be a very capable. It makes sense, it fits with the story, and it will give the PCs a wonderful sense of accomplishment when they finally defeat him.
That is, unless they don’t or can’t. There have been many times when PCs haven’t seen the traps I’ve laid out or have shown remarkably little curiosity regarding the doings and capabilities of rival NPCs, and, as a result, find themselves blindsided, outmaneuvered, or even killed. This has occasionally resulted in players being disappointed or even angry with what happened, and this is a terrible thing – people should be having fun. This is a game we’re talking about, after all.
So, what to do?
The Idiot Ball
In fiction, there’s a device called ‘the idiot ball’. It’s primarily a derisive term for inconsistent plotting, and it refers to the times when various characters in a work behave more stupidly than they should for the purpose of moving the plot along or enhancing tension.
Perhaps the best and most obvious example of the idiot ball is the Galactic
Empire of Star Wars. So long as the stormtroopers aren’t shooting at people with names, they’re pretty damned dangerous. As soon as they start blasting away at Han or Luke or Leia, they’ll be damned lucky if they score a glancing hit. The reason for this is obvious – you can’t have your main characters getting blown away every time they run into tons of Stormtroopers. The entire Death Star escape sequence in Episode IV would be impossible were that the case. Rather than make Han and Luke and Liea more intelligent, however, they make the Empire stupid. While this is happening, the Empire is said to be ‘holding the idiot ball’.
In RPGs, the idiot ball is what a GM uses any time the players don’t seem to be capable enough to handle the foes they are faced with. Orcs suddenly make foolish tactical decisions, giant robots carelessly step on volatile chemicals, and the unholy hosts of Hell suddenly have an awfully hard time searching your average elementary school for hiding investigators.
While it isn’t very good for fiction, the idiot ball can be very useful for a game. It ought to be used sparingly, though, as making the party’s foes too stupid (especially when it is contrary to their nature) makes the game too easy and gives the GM a reputation of being a softy (which reduces the tension inherent in the game). The idiot ball ought to be given the henchmen and underlings – the guys the PCs are supposed to be able to outwit and beat up without fear. It should not be applied to the big villains, since they should be a significant challenge. Heck, it shouldn’t even be applied to the big villain’s elite bodyguards since, again, you want to keep things tense and give the PCs that sense of accomplishment.
But what happens when the PCs just aren’t up the challenge? What happens when they encounter a guy they just can’t figure out how to beat? Well, first of all, this shouldn’t happen all that often – they should have the capacity to defeat anything they are supposed to be able to defeat. Secondly, if it does happen, you should consider this question: Why can’t the PCs lose? Now, if the answer to that question is ‘they all die and the campaign ends’, you ought to pull the idiot ball out of your back pocket, hand it to the All Powerful Necromancer, and have him do something stupid. If the answer, on the other hand, is ‘the PCs are stripped off all their stuff and sold into slavery in a distant land’, that sounds pretty goddamned awesome to me and I say go for it. Have them lose. Let them nurse the bitter seeds of hatred and revenge; have their ordeal temper them into a much greater force than before and, when they return, have their victory be that much more sweet.
To me, that sounds like a lot more fun than ‘Queen Bavmorda spills the
sacrificial blood on herself and dies’. How stupid is that?
Remember: the PCs are in your game to have fun, and having fun means overcoming obstacles and conflicts and winning despite all odds. Everybody wants to pull a Die Hard and wipe out all the terrorists with a mixture of luck (dice), skill, and sneaky planning. Let them pound on the underlings, but make them earn the big kill. Throwing Alan Rickman out that window wasn’t easy, and your PCs don’t want to defeat their villain as easily, either. The PCs should only have a 60% chance of success against the big baddie. They either step up to the plate or die.
In this regard, I must say that D&D 4th Edition, a game which I conventionally find very dull and flavorless, has mastered this. They have a built-in system for creating challenge. I think they do so at the expense of story, myself, which is it’s own problem and a topic for a different day, but any given GM can pick up their system and put together a challenging, easy, or moderate encounter with just a calculator and a monster manual. The idiot ball only rarely need be applied. Of course, since story is generally less important, the use of the idiot ball is correspondingly less egregious.
Anyway, I digress. My point is that GMs should be tough on their players and consistent with their characterizations of villains (some of whom will be plenty stupid, obviously). That should only change if and when persisting with undermine the fun had in a game. That should always be paramount – it’s a game, and games are meant to be fun.