November 30, 2013: The Mechanics of Death in Scripted Television!

1[WARNING: This blog entry contains spoilers for shows you really should have already watched by now].

I came across the following article this morning: ‘Walking Dead’ finale: If Daryl dies, we riot.  This, of course, is a reference to television’s most beloved redneck, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who fans fear may well meet his untimely end on this Sunday’s mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.  After all, cable’s hottest show has proven it isn’t afraid to kill off their series regulars.  Remember Sophia?  Dale?  T-Dog?  Lori?  Merle?  Andrea?  Hell, television in general has a rich history of dealing out shocking and unexpected deaths.  From MASH’s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake to, most recently, Brian Griffin on Family Guy, it would seem that  no one is safe. Not even a martini-swilling cartoon dog.

R.I.P. Brian Griffin
R.I.P. Brian Griffin

Or so they would have us believe, but the truth is some are safer than others.  Most notably series leads, regulars under contract, fan and/or writer/producer favorites – their mortality rate tends to be a hell of a lot lower than the going average.  Still, IMPROBABLE doesn’t mean IMPOSSIBLE and, occasionally, even the unlikeliest of characters fall to the grim reaper’s scythe (a.k.a. writer’s laptop).  It all depends on the circumstances.

And what ARE some of these circumstances?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Forget heart disease and car accidents.  Here are the leading causes of death in t.v. characters…

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THE STORY CALLS FOR IT

Back in Stargate: SG-1’s seventh season, Executive Producer Robert Cooper wanted to write a script that drove home the constant dangers our characters faced in the course of fulfilling their duties.  It was to be an episode that demonstrated the fickleness of death and paid tribute to the fallen – but, in order to be truly effective, it required a little something more.  It required one of our established characters to die – not while facing down alien hordes or executing some daring op but after being struck by something so seemingly random and inconsequential as an errant staff blast.  And the fact that it turned out to be Janet Fraiser, Stargate’s longtime Chief Medical Officer, dying while saving another life, made it all that more poignant.  Years later another doctor on another Stargate show met a similar fate for much the same reason.  And Carson Beckett’s demise was just as surprising and heartbreaking.

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THE CHARACTER’S ARC HAS ENDED

This usually applies to secondary characters and villains.  Sometimes, a character is created with a finite arc in mind and is ushered out when the writer feels their story has been told.  Other times, characters simply overstay their welcome like bad party guests and end up getting deep-sixed long past their natural expiration date.  As much as I loved the villainous goa’uld, I felt they’d fallen into the latter category by the end of SG-1’s eighth season.  Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman falls into the former category of course.  Wait!  What?!  Yes, it’s true.  The original plan was to kill off Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show’s first season, but Aaron Paul so impressed that the character was granted an extended reprieve.  In similar fashion, Stargate: Universe’s Dale Volker also avoided certain death.  On the other hand…

Not so fast.
Not so fast.

IT JUST DOESN’T WORK OUT

On the flip side are those characters for whom great plans are made, great hopes pinned but who, for whatever reason, fail to live up to their potential.  They are introduced, usually with much fanfare, only to exit with barely a whimper.

Sir?  Sir!  Step away from the light!
Sir? Sir! Step away from the light!

THE ACTOR/ACTRESS HAS DECIDED TO MOVE ON

It happens.  The decision is made on the part of the actor to leave the show. Amicable creative discussions ensue culminating in a fitting onscreen death.  Dr. Daniel Jackson received a heroic send-off in SG-1’s Meridian, one that never fails to tug at the heart strings on subsequent viewings.  Of course the sadness is mitigated by the knowledge that, like South Park, science fiction always leaves the door open for miraculous resurrections.

Looking forward to a long and happy marriage.
Looking forward to a long and happy marriage.

AN UNEXPECTED PASSING

The worst of all possible circumstances.  If the show continues, production will honor to their late cast member with a respectful send-off and tribute.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES DRAMA

Personality conflicts, unprofessional behavior, poor performance, a bad attitude – just some of the things that can book someone a one-way ticket on the character death express.

Everybody dies because - well - everybody dies.
Everybody dies because – well – everybody dies.

THE END IS NEAR!

Here, the writers are operating under the assumption that the show is ending and so, decide to go out with a bang.  And there’s no bang bigger than a character death. Or two.  Or more.  Hello, Blake’s 7.  The belief that the seventh season would be SG-1’s last made the decision to kill off Janet Fraiser somewhat easier.  If we had known we’d actually be coming back for another season, I’m not so sure things would have played out quite the same way.

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A DESIRE TO SHAKE THINGS UP

Ratings are floundering.  The show’s creative is in a funk.  Quick!  Do something! Historically, television producers have generally responded in one of two ways: a) They add a cute kid to cast, or b) They kill off an established character.  Given the choice, I’d go with the latter.

So, with a better understanding of the mechanics of death in scripted television, we can now appreciate the mortality of every t.v. character, from series lead to red-shirted day player.

Could they actually kill off Daryl on tomorrow night’s episode of The Walking Dead?

Absolutely.

Will they?

Not a chance.

Further reading:

29 Most Shocking TV Deaths – Entertainment Weekly

Most Devastating Character Deaths In TV History | Complex

The Most Shocking Deaths In Modern Television Drama History

July 21, 2013: A 17 (actually, 21) Question Science Fiction Book Meme!

The gang at http://www.sfsignal.com/ have launched another one of those irresistible SF-themed memes, what they’re calling a ” 17-question science fiction book meme for a lazy Sunday”.  I wrestled over a few of my responses, struggling with the relative worthiness of some of the titles, and finally decided to solve the problem by adding four extra questions to the meme (17 to 20) to round it out to an even twenty.  Er, plus one.

What follows are my responses.  Answer as many of the following as you can, in the comments section of this blog and over here: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/07/a-17-question-science-fiction-book-meme/#more-79721.  They’d love to read your feeback!

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

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The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley

It’s not an alien invasion story in the traditional sense of the term but an alien invasion does precipitate the events leading up to another (indirect) alien invasion in this thoroughly engaging novel about cloning, restored memories, and a mysterious radio signal from distant space.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

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Watchmen by Alan Moore.

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Alt. History scifi and yet, Alan Moore’s non-linear, iconoclastic take on the superhero genre stands out as one of my favorite works crossing several genres.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

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Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Okay, it includes enough cyberpunk elements for me to make it my selection in this category.  A twisty, turny, scifi thriller with plenty of humor and suspense.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

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Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Unrelentingly grim yet possessed of a spirit and hope embodied by its determined protagonist.  I’d recommend it over the similar-themed, better-known The Road.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

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Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

When I was a kid, my mother encouraged me to read by buying me a bunch of classic SF – Asimov, Ellison, Niven – but my favorite was Arthur C. Clarke,  and Childhood’s End is my favorite Arthur C. Clarke book.  A race of mysterious extraterrestrials visit Earth.  They bring an end to war, poverty, disease, and help usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.  But what future plans do these alien, dubbed The Overlords, have for humanity?

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

I could have just as easily placed this novel in the space opera category and Iain M. Banks’s Culture series here as the works of both authors share common elements: breathtaking narratives spanning the universe peopled with colorful characters, fantastic alien races,  and mind-bending technologies. Big, brilliant ideas.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

Not only my favorite military SF book or one of my favorite SF books in general but one of my very favorite books.  Period.  Every person I’ve recommended this novel to has become a John Scalzi fan.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

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The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

Maybe a bit of a cheat in that it may not have enough scifi elements to please the average SF enthusiast, but it’s got enough – the near future setting and medical breakthroughs – for me to include this poignant, inspiring, beautifully written novel here.

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

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The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

A “far down the road” post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in the guise of a fantasy novel chock full of allegory, literary allusions, and elusive subtext.  A challenging read, but well worth the time and effort.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

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In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker.

Not robot or androids per se but immortal cyborgs, employees of The Company, charged with the task of traveling back in time in order to locate and safeguard (read: hide) artifacts and valuable items for sale in the 24th century (when/where they will be discovered). Complications arise when our heroine, Mendoza, falls in love with a 16th century Englishman.  And mortal no less!

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…

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Iain M Banks’ Culture series.

Grand, brilliant, staggeringly inventive and, yes, operatic, the Culture Series stands out as a marvelous literary accomplishment.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

1The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

A washed-up illusionist and his imposing assistant battle to save London from dark forces in Jonathan Barnes’ witty, macabre, and all-out-bizarre novel.  There are surprises a plenty in a book in which no one can be trusted, least of all our narrator.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

1The Superior Foes of Spiderman by Nick Spencer

Hmmm.  Though.  This changes week to week but, right now, coming off a highly entertaining first issue, this is the series I’m most excited about.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

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The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

An exceptional treatment of time dilation makes this one the runaway winner in this category.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A seminal work of science fiction whose appeal extends well beyond young adult readers, this coming-of-age tale is set at a Battle School where, amid the training, the games, and the youthful interrelations, not all is as it seems…

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

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Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.

Before The Walking Dead television series became a breakout hit, there was the comic book series – smarter, grimmer and far more character-driven than the show.

17. My favorite ship-based sf book or series is…?

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The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank M. Robinson

Having grown up on ship-based science fiction (and worked on a ship-based SF series for two years), I couldn’t help but include this category – and this delightfully engaging novel centered on a shocking shipboard mystery.

18. My favorite New Wave sf book or series is…?

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Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

If we’re going to have a Golden Age category, I only think it fair we include a New Wave category as well and, as much as I loved Flowers for Algernon, Camp Concentration gets the nod here.  His refusal to enlist in military service lands our protagonist, a poet and pacifist, in a prison whose inmates are subjected to bizarre, brain-altering experiments.

19. My favorite Future Tech sf book or series is…?

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Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover

Science fiction AND fantasy.  Heroes Die offers the best of both worlds in a rip-roaring adventure that explores the effects of developed entertainment technology on eager consumers – and, in turn, the media conglomerates calling the shots.

20. My favorite Otherworldly sf book or series is…?

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Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

By “otherworldly”, I mean a story that takes place on a planet other than Earth – like, for instance, the colony world setting of this novel that gets taken over by the power mad former crew of a spaceship who use technological and physical enhancements to transform themselves into gods.  Fans of Stargate, take note!

21. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

Okay.  One of each…

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The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

One of my favorite SF writers.  He’s not all that prolific but his work is consistently great.

1Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

If you like your fantasy dark, darkly humorous, and action-packed, then look no further than the works of Joe Abercrombie.

1A Terror by Jeffrey Ford.

A new release by one of the most wildly imaginative authors writing today.

Okay, those were my answers.  Let’s see yours!

June 15, 2009: Hope Marty G. Is Prepping His Repertoire. A Couple Of Trade Paperback Recommendations.

Today, the writers’ room was abuzz with talk of the impending return of Golden Boy Martin Gero to the Stargate fold – for all of a week anyway. He heads back into town this weekend (We will, of course, be hitting Fuel big time in celebration) and will be back in the production offices all next week so that we can tear apart his latest script outline and, hopefully, pick his brain for the final few scripts. But that isn’t really cause for excitement. No, what we’re really looking forward to is the return of Marty G.’s expansive comedy character library – so much so that Carl jotted down some of the most memorable routines up on the white board under the heading “Martin Needs To Do”. including, my personal favorite, the eternally cheerful Topango.

Also today, work was completed that effectively transformed my house into our neighborhood Fort Knox. Window bars, gate barriers, rolling grilles, sliding shutters, and a roof mounted sniper’s nest offer security, peace of mind, and a way to ensure that nobody leaves movie night without chipping in for the pizza.

So over the past few months, I’ve been varying my enormous reading list with assorted comic books and trade paperbacks. Plenty of hits and misses among the titles (actually, many more misses than hits) but I wanted to make mention of two staggeringly fantastic ongoing series available in trade paperback.

SCALPED (volumes 1-4), written by Jason Aaron, Illustrated by R. M. Guera

Scalped

Yes, you’ve heard the name Jason Aaron before because I’ve mentioned it a few times. He’s a writer who blog regular Das recommended a while back. I checked out some of his work for DC and Marvel and came away mightily impressed. But it’s his original series, Scalped, that totally blew me away. It a Noir Western focusing on hard-ass protagonist Dashiell Bad Horse and his return to Prairie Rose, a South Dakota Indian Reservation he abandoned as a teenager. Burdened by memories of the life and loved ones he left behind, he quickly becomes ensnared in the politics of the rez, typified by murder, mayhem, and mystery. Complicating matters is the fact that Bad Horse has a few secrets of his own…

The writing is sharp, raw, and unflinching. The artwork appropriately bleak and weathered, mirrors our hardened hero. It’s like a one of HBO’s better shows – in trade paperback form.

THE WALKING DEAD (Compendium 1 collecting issues #1-48), written by Robert Kirkman, Illustrated by Tony Moore, Charlie Aldrad, and Cliff Rathburn.

Walking Dead

Hyperbole aside, The Walking Dead is the greatest work of zombie fiction ever produced. Yes, apologies to George Romero and Max Brooks who have done wonderful work in the field, but Kirkman’s series trounces all undead comers with its nightmarish dystopian setting, scope of its storytelling, and incredible depth and richness of its characters. The zombie apocalypse has come and a group of survivors battle the undead and each other in their struggle for survival. Almost impossible to put down once you’ve started.

Check ’em out!