Monday, August 24, 2009

Burning the Midnight Zeppelin: What Could Have Been

I'm not a very good fanboy.

I'm usually the last person to know about anything, and what I do know, the Abigail tells me. I just don't have the patience to scour celebrity blogs and twitter the way she does - hell, I don't even read the newspaper as often as I want to. Most of the fannish facts I know are truly ancient: tidbits of Star Trek trivia and an exhaustive supply of facts about J.R.R. Tolkien and a few about C.S. Lewis.

In general, I'm content with this state of affairs. I have better things to do than hunt down facts - especially when I have the Abigail to do it for me (I love you!). However, there is one fannish thing that always turns my crank: I love to know what could have been, the processes that lead the creators of the things I love to create.

For example, I bet you didn't know that in Exalted, the Dragon-Blooded were originally going to be the heroes of the piece and all their beliefs about how the Solar and Lunar Anathema are soulless villains was going to be true. The game was meant to focus on the crumbling, decadent empire of the Chosen and its death throes, until the developers decided that the idea was too much like some of White Wolf's other games and that it might be more fun to take Exalted in a different direction. Actually, you probably did know that. It's not a big secret.

In any case, it was therefore with great joy that I sat down last night with the Abigail to watch Echo, Dollhouse's original, unaired pilot.

Echo laid a lot of the plot out there; some threads that weren't fully resolved until the end of Season 1 were finished in one episode! It was obvious to me that Whedon intended Echo to catch the studio's attention, and I'm glad it did.

That said, I'm glad of many of the changes. I like that the real series drew out the process of breaking Adele DeWitt down from the untouchable and all powerful matriarch of the dollhouse (actually, in some ways, an example of the rare, well-done ambiguously powerful matriarch) to a conflicted middle-manager with intimacy problems. I also enjoyed real-series-DeWitt's less vulnerable, more self-consciously wicked style. I like that the real series softened Topher a little by making him the origin of the "humanitarian" pro-bono assignments on which the Dolls are sometimes, rather than Doctor Saunders.

On the other hand, some things seem to have been lost. In particular, the Topher/Boyd friendship was much stronger and more compelling in the pilot. Similarly, Topher's mercenary bent and anti-humanist ideals - all morality is programming, all humanity is meat and nerve, undeserving of respect or compassion - are downplayed in the series. It may seem contradictory for me to say that I liked Topher's image being softened on the one hand and wish it were harder on the other, but I don't see it that way. I like Topher conflicted. Epitaph One - the second unaired episode - did this brilliantly... but I'll let you find out how for yourself.

From whense comes my strange fascinating with what might have been? Why does it penetrate into my otherwise current-events-impermiable skull?

I believe that it is an example of my own writerly nature emerging. I have always enjoyed glimpsing the "maker's hand" inside a finished work. I like those moments when the world is pulled over my eyes, I am caught by some invisible trap in the fiction. The words (or images, or whatever) pull on my hearstrings, and while I succumb, some part of me goes "aha! Well played, sir!"

It's kind of like that, but retroactively, when I see what a story could have been and get to compare it to what was.

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  • What "maker's hand" moments have you enjoyed? Does the concept make any sense to you, or am I on my own?
  • Do you know of any interesting "what might have been" stories? Care to share?

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