Friday, July 15, 2011

PRAGMATIC: The End Of Episode Reset

I was just now watching an episode of Star Trek's Original Series (Operation: Annihilate! if you really must know), and I realized that there's something fundamentally different about the way that stories unfold in a television series where everything resets.

In the episode, Dr. McCoy tests a solution for their problems that involves blasting Spock with incredible amounts of light -- enough that it risks blindness. Spock is blinded; then the nurse arrives with information that it could have been avoided, because the problem only needed to be blasted with infra-red light, which would have been okay on Spock's eyes.

There's a fantastic moment where this comes to a head; Spock is sitting, blind, McCoy faces him, his face full of the horror that he made an error in haste that blinded his friend, and Kirk storms off.

Next time we see Spock, he's healthy, striding onto the bridge. Turns out that Vulcans have a secret eye-lid that he had forgotten about "much as you humans ignore your appendix." TURNS OUT EVERYTHING IS FINE!

See, in your more contemporary HBO finely-written gritty drama, the next ten episodes would have been about how McCoy's and Spock's relationships have changed irrevocably; McCoy, wracked with guilt, would probably fall off the wagon and become an alcoholic, whereas Spock would slowly find himself consumed with bitterness at everything they've lost.

On the one hand, the great thing about Star Trek was how quickly they can float through different premises. One of the things that makes me less excited about Battlestar Galactica or other science fiction is that you're often saddled with the same premise or idea for episode after episode. Star Trek basically starts each day afresh with a whole new planet, a whole new strange mind-game to play. (By the way, DS9 failed at this, and that's why I don't like DS9. And don't even say Enterprise.)

Anyways, I'm not just talking about science fiction here, I'm talking about television-- and really, any episodic medium. I am not the comic book junkie that the hive-mind at Parabasis is, but it seems to me that over time, Marvel and D.C. turned away from the end of comic reset, and strayed more and more into the complex multi-arc. It's an important consideration for episodic narrative structures.