Friday, 5 February 2010

Epic Proportions or Losing Sight of the Scales

Recently having finished watching the fourth season of (the new) Doctor Who, I was reminded of a tendency in a lot of contemporary fiction (be it in literature, comics or film) to aim for a "bigger" sense of storytelling — epic storytelling, if you will. Now, I would like to say that I am a fan of the epic; both in its original (and also academic) sense of "narrative" and its more popular sense of "grandiose storytelling". That having been said, however, I would say that I am not a fan of this tendency.

Once more, don't get me wrong. When successful grandiose storytelling occurs, I love it. But there seems to be a mistaken sense of proportion afoot in the field. Because the tendency reveals that that aim for the grandiose and epic more often than not ends up in something smaller.

What am I talking about? I am talking about the tendency in fantasy to write never-ending stories — serials, really — or the tendency in superhero comics to write huge crossover events. One could also mention the move in television, where Doctor Who undeniably fits in, from series to serial (two terms which I will return to in an upcoming post); not always in the purest sense, but more or less.

So, what is the problem then? Quite simply put, size (as so many things) turns out to be relative on many levels. For instance, one of my favourite fantasy writers is Michael Moorcock. His concept of the Multiverse and the many incarnations of the Eternal Champion inhabiting these many realities provide true grandeur to Moorcock's fiction. There is a sense of nigh endlessness in the cosmic scale of things, but at the same time that scale is most often in the background (the weave that binds everything together) whereas the stories equally often are short (or at the very least not overly long). Compare this to all the Jordans, Goodkinds and Martins who never seem to want to finish that one story in pursuit of the grandiose. Tolkien, who somehow is as grandiose in his storytelling as they get, remains more or less unequalled by his imitators; and quite frankly, adding more and more pages simply doesn't seem to be the way to beat his grandeur.

Grandeur is perhaps best felt in that Moorcockian moment of several tales interconnecting, revealing the "world" (as it were) on a large scale – too large, perchance, to be encompassed in a single story.

The same can be said about the event craze of contemporary superhero comics. In the olden days (if you'll pardon the expression), the Marvel universe, for instance, was a big place and there was a lot of big things happening in any given year; alien invasions, evil genii attempting world domination, and life and death situations (all side by side with the smaller street scale adventures of other heroes). All of this worked well, until the notion of telling crossover stories started to spread like wildfire.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with crossovers every now and again (or guest appearances), but when at least six months every year seem to be ruled by an Event taking place, first and foremost, in a limited series, which then in crossover fashion involves more or less every single title from the company in this grandiose saga or Event, the world or universe doesn't get bigger; it gets smaller.

How do I mean? Well, before we had a multitude of events in a year, now we more or less have one. It sure brings just about every hero into the story, true. But that only makes the universes these heroes inhabit smaller; simply because less happens.

So, what does this have to do with Doctor Who? And am I saying I didn't like the fourth season?

Let me answer the second question first: I loved the fourth season of Doctor Who. It does, I think, balance its components and its sense of grandeur fairly well. I brought it up, partly because it manages this, but also because I could see the tendency at work towards the end. Comparing it to the old classic Doctor Who shows (which ironically were serials proper, of course), I was struck by the fact that the entire Eccleston and Tennant runs leave fairly little time for extracurricular adventures. In short, in many ways, what we see is what we get. Nothing more, nothing less... but yet again, nothing more!

We seem to want more and more interconnectedness in our storytelling, quite simply put, but it also seems as if many of the people telling us stories misses the point that interconnectedness neither equates a single ongoing story or tying every story together with all the others. Often true grandeur lies in a grander weave of tales — tales in the plural — which interconnect with each other both through the slightest of touch points here and there, and more direct links.

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