Sunday, 17 October 2010

Structural Analysis for Cylons

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a boy, later a man, who could watch TV and read books simply to enjoy the story. Part of him is still inside me and he likes a good tale, whether it's told by Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett or Joss Wheedon. But, as a writer, and as an academic who, let's face it, spends a lot of his time deconstructing texts, there is now always a part of me casting a critical eye over whatever I read or watch, whether it is Northanger Abbey, The Wasp Factory or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My current favourite waste of time is the third season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Much has been written about how this series is a critique of the events of 9/11 and the war in Iran and Afghanistan, and all of that has passed through my mind as I've watched it. But, above and beyond all that, it is a well-told story which works. The realisation of that is the point at which my inner critic starts to pick that story apart to try and find out why it works.

Some of the things it does - and I'm talking about the third season here - are particular to serial drama. At the end of the second series everything has changed and all the things we think we know are overturned. As a result, the season starts by showing us the intractable problems of all this change and then slowly, piece by piece, it returns us to the status quo. This is typical of this kind of drama. Normality - even if this is the whole of humanity on the run in a small number of spaceships from an overwhelming and evil force of Cylons - needs to be maintained for the story to continue. Back in the 80s, the story-writing guidelines for Star Trek: The Next Generation were publicly available and they made this clear. No-one could be killed, ships could not be destroyed, things that were known to be could not be otherwise unless, that is, they were returned somehow at the end of the story. There must be continuity.

But, within this larger arc of continuation, there are the ups and downs which make this highly acclaimed series so engaging and addictive and each episode features the things we would expect from any great show, box-office success, or award-winning novel.

First, there is conflict. Any writing teacher will tell you that drama and plot emerge from conflict. Those who are together will split. Those who are apart will find a way back together. Friends will become enemies, traitors will be revealed as trusted allies, the weak will find a way to be strong.

In the course of any single episode there will be a set-up in which questions are posed. Some of these are based in the past; in previous conflicts. Some propose possibilities for the future. As the story carries on, these questions will be unpicked as the missing details are revealed. At about the 2/3 point there will be a major conflict which seems, in some way, to be the premature end of the story, but instead merely leads to the confrontation which forms the real end of the story. These are often, but not always, the result of two seperate sub-plots which in some way mirror each other - either directly or in opposition.

And so, as the episode closes, the story has moved on to a new place, with new questions to be unravelled in a future episode and old questions settled. The status quo is maintained, all the main characters are alive, the things that are needed to move the whole story forward are still there, but allegiances have shifted and the plot, as a whole, has moved on.

I'm not saying that we should all write books, or dramas, based on spaceships fleeing the destruction of the human race, and in search of the mythical 'Earth'. I'm also not saying that this structure is one which underpins all good drama or literature, and nor should it be. But I am saying that there is something in these TV series which can be analysed and understood on the basic levels of good-story-telling and may give us insights into the dynamics that in the end make a story engaging for the viewer or reader.

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