Friday, 9 March 2018

Bookends to a car journey

Yesterday, I spent seven and a half hours out of ten and a half driving, on a round trip that should have taken five.  On the outward leg, I listened to a podcast of Kermode and Mayo's Film Review covering Star Wars: The Last Jedi (yes, as usual, I'll get to the their Christmas special around Easter).  On the way back I caught, amongst many other things, the first half of the new Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase.

I think the former may go some way to explain my views of the latter.

You see, I have history with Hitchhikers', having played Arthur Dent in a school drama production some 31 years ago this month.  My first writing - well, 'with additional material by' - credit, as well.  It was very much in the ether during my youth, the original fits playing incongruously on the kitchen radio whilst my mother cooked lunch.  I read the first books when I was eleven, twelve, something like that, around when the TV series aired.  Basically, I was at that impressionable age when fads become obsessions, and Hitchhikers' could have been custom made for my academic, wordy, somewhat gauche former self.

And, vitally, I had somebody's dressing-gown tails to hang on to.  Arthur Dent's.  It's not just that there's a facet on me that's very Arthur: confused and pompous middle management, writing complaining letters to local newspapers.  It's that he's the classic everyman character, giving us our way into the fictional world, our bridge.  All of Adams' bizarre flights of fancy can be packaged and sold to us because Arthur has to take them at face value.  And, for the purposes of story, we are Arthur.

That's why Harry Potter works so wonderfully, but Urusla LeGuinn is somewhat more obtuse - sorry, where's my way into Earthsea?  It's why the Doctor has companions, not just to have somebody to talk to but for us to relate to.  It's why, contrary to what I was originally taught, the most interesting character is not necessarily always the hero of your story.

But that was all then.  Now?  Perhaps I'm jaded with age, but I found the new Hitchhikers' a mess of smart-cum-silly ideas, ridiculousness and daft names without any kind of framework.  Yes, it's not fair judging on half an episode (if only pedestrians playing with the traffic had closed the Brynglas Tunnels in both directions I may have caught all of it), but god knows I know that editors reading my stuff won't turn the first digital page over unless I give them reason to do so.  But I couldn't tell whose story it was, and if story is journey, where they needed to go.

I think it may have been John Cleese (and, remember, Douglas Adams was in the Python's circle) who said British comedy is silly things done straight, American is straight things done silly.  The original Hitchhiker's fits that mould: there's a very intelligent story structure behind it, which grounds the space-Dada.  The new stuff: silly done silly.  A natural clown only in the sense that its nose is red and bulbous before it sits in front of the make-up mirror.

(There's a separate but related note, on stories being key journeys that characters take only once; resurrect a character for a sequel and there's a feeling of artificiality, that he's completed this before.  The clear exception is police procedurals: cops keep being thrown problems in the real world, hence a constant grind of story doesn't ring false).

And this is what Kermode had said earlier that day that rang so true about Hitchhikers' in his review of The Last Jedi.  That character is story.  That protagonists do things, make the decisions which decree the way the story arcs, dependent on their characters.  Put well-defined characters in a situation and story will play out as a natural consequence.  Put simply, no other narrative will be possible: the writer is simply reporting what occurs, without losing sight of his cast as they race ahead.

I'm not sure I fully sign up to The Last Jedi being a masterpiece or for it being a glowing example of story progressing within the tight constraints of characters' beliefs, abilities and preferences.  But I think it hits the nail on the head of why I won't be seeking out the second half of that first episode of the Hexagonal Phase.


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