Predictability is Death

I’ve been watching Torchwood for the first time, and most likely the last.   It has various problems: I find none of the characters except Jack engaging, there is little or no display of the kind of the competence that makes us love teams (Leverage!),  and I keep getting the impression that Torchwood made things worse more often than better.  However, it was early in the 2nd season (Episode 3) that I was able to isolate the biggest reason it kept irritating me.

Look at it this way: It is perfectly all right, sometimes, to have the audience emotionally engage with a character , then kill off that character.  It can be cathartic, and it can also raise the stakes—it lets the audience know you’re serious, that no one is safe, that the danger is real, and so on.


If the only time there is emotional engagement you know that it will turn out bad, that there’s no chance of it working out, then all of a sudden you’ve lowered the stakes, usually to zero; I find myself saying, “Oh, look.  It’s a sweet romance; I guess that he’s going to leave so I can feel all sad for her.  Whatever.”  Or, “Hey, an extremely likable character.  He’s going to die.  Yawn.”

Just as the possibility of sorrow increases the tension and makes us engage, if there is no possibility of happiness, we just stop caring.

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15 thoughts on “Predictability is Death”

  1. So how does this relate to the prologues of all the Destroyer novels, in which we get likeable and sympathetic POV from a character who… Well, you know.

  2. I wanted to like Torchwood, and instead I hated all but one episode. When they said “Doctor Who for grown-ups,” I expected “Doctor Who with more shades of grey and ethical complexity,” not “Doctor Who with drugs, poor sexual ethics, and heroes who suck at being heroes.”

  3. Emma: We don’t especially care about that character. Or, really, about the prologue. We’re just going, “Okay, what is that set-up for this one that will provide a structure for Remo and Chuin to be Remo and Chiun at each other?”

    Matt: Good summary.

  4. “Just as the possibility of sorrow increases the tension and makes us engage, if there is no possibility of happiness, we just stop caring.”

    Apropos of, well… everything… you could say the same thing about (in)justice.

  5. It was pretty much what Joss did, eventually, with Buffy. Although, with humor. May even could have been a musical title… you’re going somewhere with this? I got where you ended. I think.

  6. Yeah, I was also about to mention Whedon, who was also an openly-acknowledged influence on Torchwood. It’s this idea that true, deep drama is about things going horribly wrong *all* the time. Just makes you stop caring. I frequently want to rewatch Buffy and Angel, until I remember what happens to every relationship I care about.

    (Also, Torchwood contains some of the very worst acting I have ever seen, and Gwen Cooper might be the most unintentionally irritating character in the history of television.)

    This was also why my first viewing of Lost was not as enjoyable as later ones; I’d become convinced that they were also into Whedon logic. Once I’d finished the whole thing and realized that wasn’t the case even remotely, I could rewatch it and fully appreciate it for the freaking masterpiece that it is.

  7. In Whedon’s defense (because, goddamn it, I like Joss’ work, flaws and all) many of those exploding relationships were dictated by outside factors, like actors getting other jobs, or pregnant, or what have you. And unlike Stephen’s example, he didn’t introduce characters just to kill them or break their hearts… everyone got a full arc so the pain, when it came, was fully earned. No red shirts in Whedonverse.

    Buffy also has one episode that I think is the very best example of true, properly executed tragedy in TV.

    *Spoiler alert for anyone 15-20 years behind on TV viewing*

    The episode where Buffy’s mother dies unexpectedly is a brilliant piece of storytelling. It brought all the messiness and pain of ordinary human life into the middle of a superhero story, Joyce was a longstanding character who had earned all the love and investment viewers felt for her, and her death had a real impact on every other character. The sequence when Buffy first comes home to find her mother on the couch and has a mini-break from reality is one of the most painful and true scenes I have seen.

  8. Predictability is definitely bad in the illustrated cases where the effect of the negative prediction is to drain interest in doomed characters. But IMO it’s not necessarily bad at all where an expected trope or plot pattern is satisfied to yield a positive outcome.

    No one complains about HEA or HFN where the characters “deserve” it, in or out of romance. It’s 100% predictable in romance, but it’s also necessary, and where it happens outside of that genre, it’s still generally satisfying.

    A good example of the kind of predictability flaw described in the OP that comes to my mind is a defect in the otherwise delightful Travis McGee novels. If Travis meets an attractive, self-possessed women, she’s probably doomed. If he sleeps with her it’s all over. There may have been one or two female characters for which this didn’t immediately come true, but something horrible eventually happened to them in a sequel. Combine that negative predictability with the other immutable pattern, the inevitable physically dominating psycho who tortures Travis after a false early climax, and I have real problems with a series I would otherwise treasure.

  9. You could replace “Torchwood” with “Game of Thrones” and that would sum up my feelings pretty well. Too bad popular shows are just misery porn now.

    Really looking forward to some Vlad based escapism in less than a month though!

  10. “It can be cathartic, and it can also raise the stakes—it lets the audience know you’re serious, that no one is safe, that the danger is real, and so on.”

    Since someone mentioned Serenity, my feeling is that I don’t watch these shows or movies to be reminded that life sucks, we are mortal, and good people die. I already know that. I watch these for the escape from all that.

    That is especially true for characters that one has a long relationship with (Wash and Book).

    Had the movie been self-contained, their deaths would not have had the same impact, and this went beyond raising the stakes.

    I can almost accept Book’s death, especially since it was a hero’s death, but that was also a contrived plot point. Wash’s death was pointless and not pertinent to the development of the plot.

    What Joss accomplished is not giving “more meaning” to the film, but reducing the enjoyment I get out of watching the series.

    Whenever I watch one of his scenes, it hurts to know Wash won’t be growing old with Zoe, won’t have little Washes, and Zoe will likely be alone. Yes, they are characters in a story. But the fans chose to make them a part of their lives. Joss asked fans to make them a part of their lives.

    On this point I think Joss blundered. He took more away than he gave back. He didn’t raise the stakes so much as he rammed them through our (and Wash’s) hearts.

  11. Wow . . . I can’t believe I’m reading a reference to Remo and Chuin some forty years after I was reading the books.

    To this day, were I to wish for a superpower, it would be to be the equal of Chuin in the Sinanju martial art. What am I saying? I meant, better than.

    In writing this, I did a quick search and was surprised to read the Wikipedia entry . . . the books went on a lot longer than I thought . . . 2008. I might have to look into them again if for no other reason to see how well they aged. I think I donated all the books before one of my moves. Too bad that.

  12. I believe the issue is one of poor quality control. Either because the writers of the show/movie simply don’t have the ability to write more complex material or good writers find themselves under pressure to deliver on a schedule that doesn’t allow for multiple drafts that are required to produce quality writing.

    There have been multiple shows that had huge potential but the writers couldn’t deliver good story. Just a few examples Battlestar Galatica, the original could have been fantastic but the writers were forced to recycle stories from other sources just to keep pace with the filming schedule. They even had a “towering inferno episode” that used much of the original dialogue from the 1974 Movie.

    Another favorite example are the shows like “Friday the 13th” and “Warehouse 13” and others. The basic premise of these shows is that common everyday items could be dangerous in ways people do not expect. The heroes are tasked with finding the items and making the world a safer place. This allows for a huge diversity in story telling. The problem is that the writers often have difficulty coming up with new ways of saying; Step one: someone dies Step two: hey we figured out how/why it happened Step three: we fix it/save the day JUST IN TIME. Step four: make a joke at a characters expense, fade to black with end credits. Sometimes they just repeat the same story with different details but often they go off the rails on tangent story lines that distract from the main premise.

    The number of shows that are able to pull it off for any length of time are very few and far between. “Doctor Who”, “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek DS9” are some examples that were able to sustain good writing and have good favorability with fans despite low quality acting in places and incredibly low budgets in others.

    I like to keep in mind the 90/10 rule. In any group/genre 90% is garbage. You have to sift though all of it to find the 10% that is worth the effort.

    Just my $0.02

  13. @disperser:


    If it makes you feel any better, in the comic books continuing the story of Firefly/Serenity, it’s revealed that, when Wash died, there was a little Washburne already on the way.

  14. @richard . . .

    No, it doesn’t make me feel better. For one, it’s throwing a half-chewed bone to a pissed-off dog, and for another, my main objection is that Wash dying takes away from the enjoyment of rewatching the series. The kid wasn’t in the series, so it offers no confort at all.

    For some, them who grew up without fathers, it might offer the opposite.

    I honestly think writers are not thinking these things through. I mean, it they wanted shock value, why not have Wash get captured by the Reavers, then turn into one himself such that Zoe is the one that has to kill him . . . and thus precipitating her own transition to becoming a Reaver and eventually killing the whole crew just before blowing up Serenity and throwing herself off a cliff!

    Why, imagine how real that would make things feel. The pathos, the drama, the uplifting . . . wait, scratch that.

  15. The phrase you’re looking for is The Eight Deadly Words (utter as you fling a book against the far wall, know you will never pick it up again): “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

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