Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 5 TV Series Once Upon A Time on ABC

Part 4 of this Believing in Happily Ever After sequence of blog posts is

It has links to the previous 3 parts and the Verisimilitude vs. Reality series.

In Verisimiltude vs. Reality and other posts linked in that series, we delved into the real world the reader lives in and looked at how that real-world environment shapes the enjoyment of a fictional environment.  Eventually, we'll look even deeper into various methods a writer uses to handle theme and how the chosen method affects the size and shape of the audience the writer might reach.

The purpose of this study is to deliver a Happily Ever After ending experience to readers/viewers who flatly disbelieve in the possibility.

Part of the real-world environment a reader lives in is the fiction (video, text, big screen, radio) the reader is immersed in.

The TV Series Once Upon A Time on ABC is part of that environment. 

I was reminded forcefully of this in November 2011 by the announcement of the death of Anne McCaffrey, creator of the Dragonriders of Pern.  Her biography page says she was born April 1st, 1926, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 1:30 p.m. and her first novel was published by Ballantine Books in 1967. 

My first story was published by Fred Pohl in World of If Magazine of Science Fiction in January 1969. 

In April of 2011 Copperheart announced that filming of  the first Pern novel, Dragonflight, would begin in 2012. 


The Friday after the announcement of her passing was a #scifichat devoted to Santa, and what SF presents SF readers would give to other SF readers.  But the second hour of the chat became a remembrance of Anne McCaffrey, not just Pern but all her other wonderful novels.  The discussion branched out into writers she had influenced and what her success with Pern introduced to the entire field.

McCaffrey broke through with not just the overt sexuality of the Dragon/Rider relationship in the Pern novels, but the emotional bonding of a true, committed, to-the-death relationship.  That angle resonated with the audience of the 1970's.

I don't know what they're planning to do with the film, but there are Pern fans involved in creating it.  From the discussion on twitter, though, I gather different readers remember different components of those novels. 

Some people had avoided the Pern novels because they thought the novels were fantasy.  They aren't.  They're science fiction that looks like fantasy.

Fast-forward to 2012 and take a close look at the TV Series Once Upon A Time.

Is it fantasy or science fiction?  Is it Paranormal Romance?  Is it kid-lit?  What is this series?  Is it even important?

Note how it does 2 things that have become standard fare on Television.

a) It rewrites "history" as "steam punk" does -- but focuses on the fairy tale universe of Snow White and Prince Charming with the Wicked Witch (complete with mirror and poison apples), not the Victorian era.

b) It juxtaposes this "fantasy" world of the rewritten storybook with our everyday reality, (like Urban Fantasy often uses 2 universes with a door between).  You may remember how Forever Knight handled flashbacks to hundreds of years ago. 

Yep, I said "between" -- which isn't quite like "Between" of the Pern novels through which Dragons teleport their Riders to fight Thread.

But the principle is the same as Star Trek's transporter, Warp Drive, or any number of "devices" that let characters travel from one spot to another fast enough not to slow the plot down.

Once an audience has been introduced to these techniques -- as in Time Tunnel, Quantum Leap, or Sliders -- producers doing another show can use that technique as a given and get on with their own stories.

So, despite McCaffrey introducing readers to Between in the 1970's, and Star Trek's transporter and warp drive coming online in the 1960's, the Pern movie will be regarded as borrowing or stealing the "device" of Between. 

The Pern novels start at the beginning of a period of warfare against "Thread" (a crop-destroying rain of organisms from space), in which misery, starvation, poverty, and perhaps the extinction of humanity on the planet Pern, are the apparent direction of life.  An apparently stable society is brought down around the heads of its ordinary people, and it's power brokers, while the disregarded powerless are elevated to hero status. 

It's very much what this reality faces today -- the impending or actually in progress meltdown of the global financial system.  Or the meltdown may be over by now and we just don't realize we've hit bottom and are going to climb again.

We also have impending war, and war in progress in a lot of places, war that brings the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

That's the reality the audience lives in, and would very much like to escape.

What's better than escaping Reality, though, is coming to understand it in a way that lets you carve out a life leading to your own Happily Ever After.  Fiction can provide that kind of "grip" on reality that steadies you down for the long haul up to a better life.

The Pern novels depict a world locked in a frozen feudal system, suddenly attacked by Thread, and saved by the superstitious, traditional, disregarded, way too expensive fossilized organization known as the Dragonriders.  Suddenly, the feudal lords can't protect their people, but the poverty-stricken, useless, and widely regarded as nut-fringe folks are the only ones who can protect people.

I think Pern can fly as a TV Series once it's been a successful movie.

Pern does not paint a rosey Happily Ever After picture.  It doesn't even give you a "Happily For Now" (HFN) ending.  The novels end on the upbeat of a challenge conquered, but with the vista of a new, bigger challenge yet to come.

The Hope in these endings is that during the "action" section of the novels, Relationships form that are solid, perhaps unbreakable, and enable the teams to face bigger challenges with the expectation of surviving.  Thus the Pern novels are perfect examples of Intimate Adventure. 

The secret of the Pern novels though is in the story the theme its founded on, and how that theme is shown not told. 

The Relationships formed have the seeds of real Happiness in them, and the overwhelming force of what might be described as karma.

The characters, dragons and humans, all go through a stepwise process of bonding with a soul mate, and the result always seems - after the fact - to have been inevitable, right, and just. 

Yes, Poetic Justice again:

The Pern novels are a perfect example of a) Paranormal Romance (the telepathic bonding with Dragons) and karmic marriages, and b) that there really is Justice in the world, and it always SINGS (music is a huge component of the Pern world).

Now,  contrast/compare the TV Series Once Upon A Time with the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey.

Eventually, the Pern series does get to including time travel, so there is another comparison.

Once Upon A Time updates the fairy tale world of Snow White etc. using modern characters and relationships.  The story is thus more accessible or believable to the adult audience.

The thing is, when these fairy tales were originally circulating as folk-tales, they depicted the "real" or modern world the intended audience lived in.  Today, there aren't many "folk" tales, made up by non-professional story-tellers and passed around to be improved on by others.  Most of our fiction, even for children, is professionally created and designed for the broadest possible audience.  (YouTube is changing that; urban folk-legends and folk music is reviving!)

So it would seem appropriate to "update" the oldest tales again, and embue them with the moral lessons of today's world, rather than the original lessons inserted by the Brothers Grimm from extant folktales that probably date back before the 1500's.  It's done in every generation. 

Google "Snow White" and you'll find everything from a new forthcoming movie to scholarship by serious professors.  Folk tales are very revealing of the underlying culture.

So consider what this Once Upon A Time TV Series reveals about Hollywood's idea of our culture, of what we are, what we should be, and what we want to be.

There's a lot of philosophical material in this subject, some of it as yet untouched by writers looking for themes.

I want to point you to just one aspect of this series that you can ponder and maybe plunder for story material.

The premise of Once Upon A Time is that the Evil Witch curses the community of Snow White and Prince Charming to be transported to a place where THERE ARE NO HAPPILY EVER AFTER ENDINGS - not for anyone except the Evil Witch herself! 

And that place where it is a fact that the HEA does not exist and can never exist is HERE - in our everyday reality.

The Evil Witch is now the Mayor of a small town in the USA where people can't leave - they can't escape.  If they try, horrid things happen, driving them back.  The Mayor's word is law.  She's happy. 

The curse can be broken, but only by one woman who was born when the curse was hurled.  She was rescued and flung aside into our world before the curse trapped her, too.  

Only one small boy knows what's going on because he found the fairy tale book.  He lures the woman who can break the curse to the town, they wake Prince Charming from a coma, and then things get interesting.

The premise that sells this TV show to a major network may be taken to be  "this world's natural condition is that Happily Ever After can not happen."  That's why this world was the Evil Witch's chosen destination.  Or maybe the curse only applies to the one small town the Witch dominates?  It's fascinating how they dance around this topic, probably waiting for ratings responses to see which direction to take the show. 

They appear to be waiting to see if the majority subconsciously believe that Happily Ever After can't happen in this world.  And then they'll decide what to do about changing that situation. 

By using this premise as the main conflict, the series creators induce a hostile audience to watch (and become addicted to) a fairy tale about restoring the world's ability to produce a Happily Ever After ending to Romances.

They can wait to see the audience response to decide how "dark" to make this world, just as the TV Series Beauty and the Beast danced around the Romance -- the premise being that the couple could never be together (because he was a Beast who had to hide "below" in darkness). 

The Once Upon A Time TV series may be the breakthrough Event (the Overton Window Event) we've been looking for.  It may be another try at the Beauty and the Beast audience, and it might succeed in reaching beyond that audience.  Another show in this line of development is Lois And Clark.   The dramatic problem with all these show-premises is that once the inherent conflict is solved, the show is over.  If you don't solve it, the audience loses interest.  If you do solve it, your job as writer/producer is over and you don't get paid anymore.  The only way to avoid solving the problem is to turn the plot in a "dark" direction, away from the Happily Ever After. 

The beginning of Once Upon A Time takes our theme, our main problem, and puts it "on the nose" the exact way the TV Series Leverage treats its theme ("The rich and powerful take what they want: we steal it back for you.")



But the TV Series Leverage is structured for an endless sequence of adventures while the main characters barely hang onto life and sanity. 

The TV Series Once Upon A Time may herald a change in what's acceptable to particular audiences as Star Trek and Pern did in the 1970's.  The producers may tackle the conflict head-on and change our world into a world where Happily Ever After is an available option for most people, including fairy tale characters trapped in a town dominated by an Evil Witch. 

Oh, do remember, Star Trek was not popular in the late 1960's when it first aired for barely 3 years.  The explosion only came when it went into reruns and sifted into the consciousness of TV viewers during the 1970's.  Those were not the same people who were reading Pern, though there were overlaps.

Most people who read Pern (and Sime~Gen) watched Star Trek -- but most people who watched Star Trek did not read Pern or any other science fiction.  In fact, even when the Star Trek novels took off as New York Times Bestsellers (an unprecedented event I participated in by being the Agent who sold A. C. Crispin's Star Trek original novel Yesterday's Son), those who bought and devoured those tie-in novels did not follow the established Science Fiction authors who wrote them back into the authors' own worlds.

It took decades (a generation) to bring Star Trek tie-in readers into science fiction.

The main force that I think did it was Star Trek fan fiction (which is what my non-fiction book Star Trek Lives! is about). 

Writers of Star Trek fan fiction grew up to be Science Fiction and/or Fantasy professionals, an unthinkable result of indulging in writing fan fiction.  The explosion of the adult Fantasy novels mostly by women writers, many of whom had been fanfic writers or readers, opened the door for the modern treatment of sexuality and soul-mate bonding in Paranormal Fantasy. 

I don't think it's a cause-effect chain of events.  But there is a relationship that we can explore in later entries in this blog series.

In the mean time, watch Once Upon A Time, read the Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey, and compare them.  And see what is done with Pern on film! 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. I love Once Upon A Time. Mainly for the fairytale land aspect and Rumpelstiltskin. The modern day piece is very slow to develop and sometimes the parts don't make sense with the characters established background (mainly EMMA)

    The theme I love is Everything has a Price. And paying the price doesn't guarantee happiness.

    As for the Pern movie, I'm holding off until I see it. I've loved the Pern novels since the 80s and read them multiple times. But Hollywood does what it wants and that doesn't mean they won't change things.