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Mary Poppins: Who exactly is Bert?

Posted in analysis, disney, storytelling by commorancy on June 11, 2019

Mary PoppinsThis is one question that I’m sure many people have asked themselves after watching 1964’s Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. With the recent release of 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, these questions resurface with Jack in the newest film. Let’s explore.

Bert and Mary

I’m focusing on the 1964 film with this article. I may write another article later that focuses on the new film… though, a lot of this applies to Jack in the newest film. I will briefly discuss Mary Poppins Returns in relation to Mary Poppins.

It’s clear, Mary and Bert know one another… and they know one another well. How they know each other is a mystery that is not solved in either of the films, but they have met numerous times based on their dialog, Bert’s clues and lots of hints from Mary. In this article, I will postulate a few things that might seem out of place, but if you think about it, you’ll realize that it isn’t that far out of place and may bring a sense of closure.

Somethings BrewingBert is the first person the audience meets in Mary Poppins. This isn’t an accident. The story starts off with Bert to show just how omnipresent Bert actually is. It also shows us Bert is a “free spirit” and does whatever he pleases, comes and goes when he pleases and shows up only when needed. On other other hand, Mary Poppins is the opposite of Bert. She is an extremely controlling and vain individual (magical or not). She always wants things “just so”. She has a very specific profession and sticks to it. If things are not exactly as she wants, she’s not happy. Bert, on the other hand, is happy simply to be there helping out whenever he can, and be around Mary.

Uncle Alberts PlaceBert even seems to know “Uncle Albert” when Mary and the kids visit him while he’s laughing on the ceiling. Bert is already there when Mary shows up. This is suspicious. If a magical uncle lives in the area, how would Bert know about him and where he lives? How did Bert find out about his most recent incident? From the dog, Andrew? If Bert talks to dogs like Mary, then he is the same as Mary. Bert has also been to see Uncle Albert before and has even had to talk Albert down before. Bert states that it took 3 days to talk him down a previous time. If Mary and Uncle Albert are related, as is heavily implied by the movie, and Bert visits Uncle Albert occasionally, then Mary and Bert are much more than mere acquaintances.

In fact, when Bert fake attempts to jump into the chalk picture with the children, Mary chastises Bert for making something simple into something complex. This implies that she knows Bert knows how to do it properly and is doing it intentionally wrong on purpose… simply so that Mary has to do it. Watch this scene again and you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost as though Mary expects Bert to show his magic off, but when he doesn’t she becomes frustrated with him. Bert manipulates Mary into using her magic instead.

Mary’s Powers

We all know that Mary has some form of magical abilities. Without this, she couldn’t do the things she does. The thing is, her being a nanny is a very calculated profession. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish as a nanny and goes about that activity in a very meticulous manner. Sure, she displays her magic in almost flippant ways, but she also knows she can gaslight people into believing they saw something they didn’t actually see.

What are the extent of Mary’s powers? We’re not sure and we’re never told. One of her powers seems to be the casting of obliviousness on humans. What I mean by this is that anyone around Mary either accepts what she does without question or completely ignores the things she does. When she leaves, she leaves so much doubt about what happened that even those who participated are left disbelieving. Both kids and adults are wrapped up in this spell. When she does something magical, the kids rarely question how or why, they just automatically accept it. Even some adults seem to fall under this spell. If they do question Mary, she immediately shuts them down by gaslighting that it never took place. After the first time, the children simply accept it.

We know what Mary can do. The bigger question remains, who is Bert and why is he there?

Bert’s Abilities

Bert is a chimney sweep, a chalk sidewalk artist, a musician and a kite seller (among other trades). He does all manner of jobs, but they’re all conveniently located within a few feet of the kids at all times. He’s almost never far out of sight. Being a chimney sweep has some benefits. After all, when Mr. Banks rips up the children’s nanny advertisement letter and he throws it into the fireplace, everyone thinks Mary is the one who retrieves the letter out of there. But, we know better. Bert, as a chimney sweep, did. He then reassembles it and gives it to Mary.

Even with all of this, there are many questions that need an answer. Let’s start answering a few based on the film. For Bert to know Mary as well as he does, including her signature “changing of the wind”, which Bert immediately identifies before Mary ever shows up, he has to have a considerable amount of time with her (or in some other way has acquired this knowledge). This change in the wind immediately signifies to Bert that Mary is on her way. To be that intimately knowledgeable about her calling card, he had to have seen it more than once, more than twice… in fact, more than a few times. You don’t recognize something like that having only ever seen it once. No, Bert knows Mary and he knows her well. Far too well, if I must say.

Bert’s Background

Bert and MaryHow could Bert know Mary that well? There are four possible ways:

1) Mary conjured Bert. If Mary conjured Bert, not only would he intimately know Mary and her ways, she would have conjured someone who would not only be smitten with her, she could easily become smitten herself. However, Mary’s callous lack of return of affection towards Bert potentially shows that she can’t return affection towards a person she has conjured. This point makes sense, but only to a point.

2) Bert conjured Mary. If Bert conjured Mary for the children, he would also intimately know Mary and her ways… because he created her. There’s an argument that could go both conjuring ways here until the release of Mary Poppins Returns. With Jack and without Bert, this throws a wrench into number 2… or does it? This one also makes sense to a point.

3) Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. This is probably the one that makes the most logical sense. This means that it’s possible that Mary enlists Bert to help her with the children and Bert is simply feigning ignorance to keep up Mary’s charade. After all, she gaslights a ton… why wouldn’t he?

4) Again, Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. Instead, Bert enlists Mary to help with the children… and based on the way the movie’s story unfolds, I’m going with this situation, which I’ll support below. In fact, Bert seems a whole lot more omnipresent than Mary. When you watch the interactions between Bert and Mary, it almost seems like Mary is heavily observing Bert for just how to behave. Mary is often following Bert’s cues, not the other way around. This situation is the only one where Bert could be smitten with Mary and Mary not return that affection. She can’t because of a master / apprentice situation. Bert is the master. Mary is the “learning” apprentice. She can’t return that affection.

A master and apprentice relationship has been commonplace for many thousands of years. For Mary Poppins, it makes sense that she’s the apprentice and he’s the master. He stands in the background not only guiding the children, but also guiding Mary.

Rationales

If we follow rationale #1, then it would make sense from a Mary Poppins perspective. She conjures up Bert to help manage and keep track of the children when she can’t be around. Bert does a fine job of that. It also means she can make Bert do anything. That Bert pretends to be a chimney sweep or chalk artist lends credence to Mary having conjured him. In fact, nearly everything that Mary does is almost entirely a product of Bert’s prompting. When Mary jumps into the chalk drawing, this is Bert’s drawing and it happened because Bert actually wanted it. When the chimney sweeps begin their amazing dance number, it’s almost solely driven by Bert. When they visit “Uncle Albert” Bert is there to egg everything on… in spite of what Mary actually wants. This could mean that Bert might have conjured Mary. But, there are still things that don’t add up if we accept this hypothesis.

For rationale 2, if Bert is conjured by Mary, it doesn’t explain why Bert has self-autonomy that Mary can’t control. Mary is a control freak. For this reason, I don’t believe Bert is actually conjured and leads me to believe that Bert could have conjured Mary. Unfortunately, this circumstance too doesn’t quite add up. Mary also has self-autonomy that Bert can’t control. Based on this, I believe (and it actually makes the most sense) that Mary and Bert are actually from the same realm. Bert simply doesn’t show off his magic, letting Mary do that. This is part of the reason Mary plays coy with Bert. She knows what Bert is capable of, she just can’t let that cat out of the bag.

Bert never overtly shows his own magic. At least, he never shows it outright. Whenever magic occurs, it’s Mary who shows it off. However, Bert is always more than happy to participate in any activity that involves magic. In fact, he seems right pleased to nose himself into every situation where Mary creates a magical landscape and he never bats an eye. In fact, he seems to enjoy himself immensely when with Mary. He also heavily plays for Mary’s affections in these magical landscapes. Perhaps Mary and Bert cannot actually produce these landscapes without the help of children? That’s worth considering… and it could be why both Bert and Mary gravitate towards children instead of adults, as adults don’t allow them to utilize their magic in the same way. Mary and Bert’s magic is symbiotic with the children. They can’t utilize magic without the children.

Mary 1We know little about Mary’s realm or where it exists. It’s clear, Mary doesn’t live in the same realm as humans. Based on my suppositions above, I also believe that Bert is from that same realm as Mary. He can also perform magic, but he prefers to rely on Mary to perform it. Once Mary gets started, he adds his own touches onto it that Mary is unaware, can’t detect or simply ignores. The kids simply think Mary is doing it all, when Bert is actually contributing to the creation of the magic. In fact, Bert may actually be reinforcing Mary’s magic making it grander than it might otherwise be.

With that said, I also believe Bert performed many feats of magic all throughout Mary Poppins, including the “Step In Time” dance number on the roof. Bert performed that magic all on his own. It’s just that we were so focused on Mary and her abilities, we didn’t see Bert’s magic and we simply assumed it all stemmed from Mary.

Even at the end of Mary Poppins when Mary leaves, Bert also disappears leaving the kids solely to their parents. Otherwise, if Bert had remained about, the kids would have kept running back to Bert to talk about Mary. When Mary leaves, so does Bert. They’re a team, or at least they were until…

Mary Poppins Returns

How would any of this explain Jack in the latest movie? My thought is that Jack is Bert with a new name and new face. Bert can’t come back many years later looking exactly like he did without drawing suspicion. Mary can because she’s the one who’s known to be “magic”. Because Jack is autonomous (and probably Bert in a new form), I believe Jack is also from Mary’s realm. Whether Jack is Bert, I’m uncertain. If Bert has magic, like Mary, then he could remake his face in the same way Mary has in “Returns”. However, there are far too many similarities between Jack and Bert. It’s also possible that Jack is Bert’s son. Perhaps Bert decided not to join Mary on this trip? Perhaps Mary must always be accompanied by another from her realm as part of her sojourns to Earth?

This would make sense. Having two could keep things from going awry. If something Mary does goes a bit haywire, Bert or Jack could put it right and keep Mary, “Practically Perfect In Every Way”. In fact, that’s the reason I believe both Bert and Jack are in the stories… to keep Mary in-check… to ensure that the kids learn their lessons without injury and that magic is always kept in its place. For this reason, I believe Bert drilled it into Mary to always gaslight after any magic escapades.

In Mary Poppins, Bert almost seems to hand-hold Mary through most of the film… as if Mary is new to this whole thing. By Mary Poppins Returns, Mary had done this a time or two and Jack seems comfortable letting Mary do more of her own thing without him being there (i.e., the bathtub scene). Though, Jack still joins Mary in the biggest number in the film, like Bert did in the chalk drawing with Mary.

After all these years, it’s possible that Mary is now the master with Jack being her apprentice in all things magic. Jack seemed to contribute far less to Mary Poppins Returns than Bert did in Mary Poppins. So, the tables may now be turned for Mary. But, apparently, they must still travel in twos.

Bert’s Professions

Indeed, Bert shows us his many varied professions. In fact, I believe that was simply a ruse to allow Mary to do the things she needed to bring the children in line. Because the children have a less than pleasant life, Mary is there to not only get the children to do the things she wants (and that her parents want), she needs them to comply. The only way to do this is, like “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, this is how Mary treats the children’s home life situation. The ‘sugar’ is her magic, the medicine is her ‘discipline’. The song may be literal, but it very much has a double meaning. In fact, because Mary gaslights the children so often after her fantastical outings, it’s less about treating the children unkind and more about Mary’s understanding of Earth children. She can’t let the children continue to believe both in magic and that magic solves all worldly problems, particularly since she’ll be leaving very soon. They must be grounded and earthbound. While magic may be easy to Mary, Jane and Michael will never be able to perform it. Mary knows this.

In fact, Mary’s magic is simply the tool the kids need to get things done for themselves. It wasn’t that she was planning to teach them ‘magic’, but teach them how to survive in the their world and to follow their father’s lead. Mary was also, more or less, a sponge. She soaked up everything about the Banks household and then inserted magic when it was appropriate to bring the kids in-line.

Mary ArrivesAs for Bert, Bert exists as Mary’s facilitator, not a chimney sweep or chalk artist. These were all professions that were needed to aid Mary in her task. They came to exist because they needed to exist for Mary to do her job. For this reason, Bert might be seen as the orchestrator of the whole story. He may have even been the architect of it all… the person behind Mary and the whole reason the Banks children ended up with Mary. This is true because Bert is, among his many professions, also a chimney sweep… as I suggest elsewhere, how else might those torn pages have gone up the chimney? One might say that Bert started it all. After all, he knows Mary extremely well. He also seemed to know something about the Banks children and about Cherry Tree Lane. In fact, he seems to know way too much about Cherry Tree Lane… way more than a random chimney sweep should know.

Bert’s Unknowing Knowing

Bert pulled the wool over our eyes, but very gently. He seems friendly, kind and generous and also innocently naïve. As he rhymes in the park sensing Mary’s arrival stating, “he can’t put his finger on it”, this was all a ruse. He knew exactly who was coming because he asked her to come. Bert even breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to the audience… he wouldn’t even know that an audience exists without some form of magic.

As the story progresses, he intentionally steps out of Mary’s (or indeed, the children’s) way. He steps aside when Mary requires him aside. He brings the Banks family together with Mary. He draws her in. He’s the one who made sure the Banks children get what they need and are left “for the better”, after Mary’s departure. He sees to and orchestrates everything. While Mary comes and does what she needs to do, Bert makes sure it all works.

In fact, Bert has likely been on Earth a whole lot longer than Mary… watching the children, waiting, seeing if they were “worthy” and if they actually needed Mary’s help. Then, in their time of need, he calls Mary to them. Bert steps in when he needs to solve family problems and, of course, he also steps in when Mary performs ‘magic’, partially to participate, but partially to make sure it all works. Sure, that children’s nanny note went flying, but it is most likely Bert who retrieves the pieces from the chimney and then calls on Mary. We see the pieces go flying, but we don’t see who ends up with them. Sure, Mary carries the note in reassembled, but Bert retrieved it from the chimney. We know this because of the scene where Mary is no where to be found. Bert and the children are by the chimney and Michael is swept up the chimney, just like the pieces of paper. This was all magic from Bert.

With that said, Bert feigns ignorance so as to be just as genuinely surprised as the children when Mary actually arrives, but that surprise seems artificial. He also doesn’t question her manner of arrival, he’s simply happy she’s there (and Mary is happy that Bert is there). Indeed, he doesn’t question Mary’s ways at all.. as if he’s just as accustomed to and comfortable with her magic as is Mary. Indeed, it’s as though Bert already knows of Mary’s arrival in advance. None of this did the children or even the Banks parents suspect.

Bert and BanksIn one of the last scenes in the film, Bert is in the house talking to Mr. Banks after the rest of the sweeps have gone. This is an 11 O’clock number and scene. This is the scene that lays Bert’s cards all on the table.

In this scene, even as Bert has played his role of the lowly chimney sweep, there is an immense sense of wisdom and orchestration. Indeed, he even sings “Just a spoonful of sugar”, a song he couldn’t have known unless he had already known Mary. Or, even more likely, Bert taught that song TO Mary. Bert’s wisdom in that scene goes far, far beyond anything Mary displays throughout the entirety of this film. Bert’s wisdom implies that Bert is the person bringing this whole situation together and resolving it… that he’s the reason Mary is even there. This one seemingly innocent scene is the one that says Bert is why the Banks family (and indeed Mr. Banks) is in its current state. Mary is no where to be found in this scene. It’s simply Bert and Mr. Banks. It’s a poignant scene that says everything about exactly why Mary has arrived and who is behind it.

Bert is not only the puppet master, but he is content (and indeed wants it) to remain that way; to stay behind the scenes and gently nudge people when they need it. If Mary acts as the precipice, Bert acts as the hand to nudge people to jump into the unknown. Indeed, Bert is the person who made the whole situation possible… from behind the scenes.

In a way, you can liken Bert to the Wizard of Oz behind that curtain. Bert pulled all of the strings making it all possible. In the end, Bert is the one behind the curtain. We don’t get to know this definitively, but the key scene between Bert and Mr. Banks should have opened everyone’s eyes about Bert. Mary seems to be the pawn, Bert appears to be the puppet master. Both are there for the same reason. Both leave for the same reason. And yes, Bert is smitten with Mary. Mary can’t reciprocate because of their complicated relationship, even though they both want the same thing for the Banks’s children. In closing, it’s also entirely possible that Bert and Mary are siblings considering that Mary treated Bert as a brother throughout most of the film.

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Skyrim: Empire vs Stormcloaks

Posted in video gaming by commorancy on January 16, 2018

I’ve recently been playing Skyrim again and have decided to finally finish the civil war storyline. I’d never really completed it when I first played because 1) I knew how it would turn out and 2) it wasn’t something I was terribly interested in completing. I decided to complete this and I have some thoughts. Let’s explore.

Game Choices

When playing the civil war storyline, you must choose a side. You can side with the Empire or with the Stormcloaks. In my case, I decided to side with the Stormcloaks and for one very good reason. The Empire has money, yes, which is why the rich Solitude folks like the Empire. It keeps their money flowing and their rich lifestyles intact. However, the Empire is far too complacent of a protection arm for long term use. The Empire will eventually fall… and fall it must. And, fall it does when the Nightmother has the Dark Brotherhood kill the Emperor.

I chose the Stormcloaks, not because they were the underdog, but because it made more sense for Skyrim. After the Dark Brotherhood quest line has the Dragonborn kill the Emperor, the Empire would be over and done with… at least for quite some time until a new Emperor was chosen. Skyrim needs a leader now, not later. The Imperial troops would then be far less cohesive after the death of the Emperor.

The game didn’t show this of the Empire, but it would be true. It would also make the Empire’s troops distracted and far less effective. This is part of the reason that the Stormcloaks could easily best them in battle.

Ulfric Stormcloak

The game claims Ulfric to be a war criminal, but that is only from the perspective of the Empire. He was vilified for the ‘shout’ that claims to have killed the High King. In fact, Ulfric admits that that was a tall tale. While the shout did temporarily incapacitate the High King, Ulfric’s sword is what did him in. With that said, we didn’t get to see the battle that led to this death, so we really can’t adequately judge if the King’s death was justified or not. We’re only told it wasn’t justified by the game. In fact, because the Daedric Princes are so petty and quarrelsome, I wouldn’t put it past one of those Daedric Princes to have had a hand in causing Ulfric to perform this deed for some reason. It might have even been Sheogorath who thrives on random madness.

In reality, Ulfric was likely a victim of circumstance. I believe he was either manipulated or he did what he thought was right and just at the time. However, it’s really all water under the bridge by the time we play Skyrim since both the Dragonborn and Ulfric are being carted off to their deaths by Imperial troops. I discounted much of the arguments against Ulfric primarily because the Empire almost beheaded the Dragonborn without explanation. I have no sympathy for the Empire at that point in the game. It’s a good thing that Alduin came along to shake it all up at that very moment.

The Thalmor (Aldmeri Dominion)

Many people believe that no matter who is in charge over Skyrim (or indeed Tamriel) that the Thalmor always stand to benefit from it. It seems that the Thalmor are interested in taking over all of Tamriel, including provinces such as Cyrodiil, Hammerfell, Valenwood, High Rock, Morrowind and, yes, even Skyrim. The White-Gold Concordat gave a huge portion of Hammerfell over to the Thalmor as a big concession. Hammerfell heavily rebelled against that and this province eventually became independent and outside of Imperial control. The Thalmor struck the White-Gold Concordat as a way to keep their hand in the operations of Tamriel and put their thumb on Talos worshipers. They side with whomever is currently in power and keep tabs on how it is going so they can strike at any weakness. Apparently, the Thalmor also have a fairly large army contingent… enough to overwhelm the Emperor’s legion so as to force the Emperor’s hand (the same Emperor who is killed in the Dark Brotherhood quest in Skyrim) to sign the White-Gold Concordat.

I’m not a big fan of the Thalmor. While the Empire has tolerated the Thalmor and given the Thalmor access to the Empire, Ulfric has absolutely no love for the Thalmor, instead choosing to kick them out. I’m all for that. The Thalmor are nosy busybodies that need to stay the hell out of Tamriel. The Thalmor need to go find their own piece of land and go run that instead of bothering the people of Tamriel with their heavy handed military tactics.

If I had to make a guess, the Thalmor were probably the instigators of the Stormcloak rebellion in the first place. Strife means they can step in and take over the land when the troops are sufficiently weak enough. The Thalmor seem to thrive on strife and want the people of Skyrim to break the agreements struck in the White-Gold Concordat. With both the Emperor and the Empire out of the way, the White-Gold Concordat is essentially null and void. The Thalmor would need to approach Ulfric with new demands and/or treaties. It also means that the Thalmor could likely come in and decimate Ulfric’s remaining troops. This is probably the biggest single thing that Ulfric has underestimated about the Thalmor, even with the Dragonborn on his side. However, I’m quite sure the Thalmor wouldn’t attack Ulfric without a warning and some posturing before deploying troops. Though, the Thalmor would definitely offer a warning shot to ensure that Ulfric understands the gravity of the situation.

Overall

When playing the civil war story, I sided with the Stormcloaks because I preferred where the story in Skyrim would head without being under Imperial control or under that unnecessary White-Gold Concordat. Skyrim, like Hammerfell, needs to become its own independent nation state for the Nords (and others) rather than continuing to be part of Tamriel. Once Skyrim is independent, the Thalmor would have to bargain with Ulfric, go away or kill everyone to lay claim to the land. Let the Thalmor go back to Cyrodiil and hang out over there… or at least some place other than in Skyrim.

Let’s hope that The Elder Scrolls VI will pick up where Skyrim left off. It would be great if we could see how it all turns out under the Stormcloak rule. Of course, The Elder Scrolls VI won’t use the Dragonborn and will explain off that character’s death in some cheesy way so they can pick up the ES:VI story with a brand new hero character like they do with each new game.

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Star Trek Voyager: Inconsistencies Abound

Posted in entertainment, writing by commorancy on April 2, 2015

I’ve recently decided to rewatch all of the seasons of Star Trek Voyager again. I missed many of the later episodes and decided now is the time to watch them. One thing I have noticed is that time has not been kind to this series, neither have the writers. Let’s explore.

Seasons 1, 2 and 3

The first thing you’ll notice about season one is the dire predicament in which Voyager is placed. After attempting rescue of a Maquis ship, the Voyager gets pulled into an unknown anomaly and is sent hurtling into the delta quadrant. After the two ship crews merge, because they need the Maquis ship as an explosive, they ‘assimilate’ both crews onto the Voyager. This is where the fun begins.

The first season sees a lot of resistance and animosity from the Maquis crew towards Star Fleet. Captain Janeway makes some questionable decisions, like blowing up the caretaker array instead of trying to salvage it, thus stranding everyone in the delta quadrant. From here, we see many a shuttle accident in among holodeck romps. It seems that every time a shuttle tries to land somewhere (for whatever reason), it ends up crashing and Voyager has to come to the rescue. If we’re not seeing rescued downed shuttles, we’re playing with stupid characters on the holodeck or beaming critical staff (sometimes the Captain herself) into inexcusably dangerous situations.

The second and third seasons keep expanding what was started in the first. But, one thing you’ll notice is that while Janeway keeps close tabs on stock depletion in the first season, all that subtext is dropped by the second season. By the third season, it became a monster of the week series where Voyager was ‘reset’ at the beginning of each episode to have a full crew, full armament of torpedoes and a full complement of shuttle craft. Additionally, any damage sustained in a previous episode was non-existent in the next episode. The only continuity that was pulled forward was the replicator rations. And, that plot device was only pulled forward to give the Neelix character some work to do as a makeshift chef in the Captain’s private dining room.

Unfortunately, dropping the limited stock, rations, crew complement and limited shuttle craft supply was a singly bad move for the writers and this series. Seeing Voyager become increasingly more and more damaged throughout the series would have added to the realism and cemented the dire predicament in which this ship was placed. In fact, in the episode Equinox (straddling seasons 5 and 6), the Equinox ship is likely similar to how Voyager’s ship and crew should have looked by that point in their journey. Also, at some point in the journey through the delta quadrant, Janeway would have had to drop the entire Star Fleet pretext to survive. If, like the Equinox, half of the crew had been killed in a battle, Janeway would have been forced to reconsider the Prime Directive and Star Fleet protocol. In fact, this entire story premise could have started a much more compelling story arc at a time when Voyager’s relevance as a series was seriously waning and viewership dropping. Taking Voyager out of its sterile happy-go-lucky situation and placing it into more dire realistic circumstance could have led to an entirely new viewership audience. Situations not unlike this would ultimately be played out in later series like BSG where this type of realism would become the norm and a breath of fresh air in the previously tired formulaic series.

Star Trek, up to Voyager, had always been a sterile yet friendly series where each episode arc always closed with a happy-ending. Each episode was always tied up far too neatly in a pretty little bow, possibly also wrapped in a morality play. While that worked in the 60s and seemed to work in the 80s for TNG, during the 90s that premise wore extremely thin. By the 2000s, gritty realism was the way of series like Stargate, 24, Lost, BSG and Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, by comparison, the new influx of gritty realism in other series made Voyager, DS9 and TNG seem quaint and naïve by comparison. Instead of perfectly coiffed hair and immaculately cleaned and pressed uniforms, we would now see dirty costumes, hair that is unmanaged, very little makeup and character scenarios where everything doesn’t work out perfectly at the end.

While Brannon Braga, Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor should get a few kudos for attempting to keep Star Trek alive, they did so at the cost of not keeping up with the times and sacrificing the franchise entirely as a result. Even when Voyager was introduced, the episodic formula that Voyager provided was already wearing thin. Even during its initial run, it was somewhat quaint and naïve already. Like attempting to recreate the Brady Bunch series exactly as it was in the 70s in the 2000s, Voyager was a throwback to the past. All of this is mostly the reason I stopped watching it during its original airing. Like an old comfort toy from childhood, eventually you have to leave it behind and grow more mature. Star Trek Voyager just didn’t grow up and mature with the prevailing winds of change, its audience age demographic and the prevailing TV series landscape. It’s ironic, Star Trek is about growth, maturity and learning, yet while the producers and writers were churning out weekly stories about these very topics, they couldn’t manage to keep up with the growth trends in their own industry. In short, Voyager needed a drastic mid-series makeover (after season 3) to keep up with the changing times.

Inconsistencies

In the first season specifically, Janeway institutes replicator rations, power saving measures, yet fully allows the crew to use the holodeck at will. Seriously, the holodeck is probably one of the top energy drains on that ship, and you’re going to let the crew use this power hungry thing willy-nilly? Yet, you force the crew to limited replicator rations? Why not disable the holodeck except for emergency use and let the crew have all the replicator rations they want? It’s seems fair to me.

Again, in the first season, Janeway identifies that the ship has limited shuttle and torpedo complements. Yet, in 3rd and later seasons, Voyager is popping off photon torpedos like candy. I also have no idea just how many shuttles have been destroyed, disabled or otherwise left as junk on planets. Yet, Voyager seems to have an infinite supply of them. It also seems that Voyager has an infinite supply of crew and torpedoes. I believe it was counted that Voyager shot off somewhere close to 98 torpedoes the entire 7 season run. And, considering that 7 seasons was actually only 7 of Voyager’s 23 years in the delta quadrant, extrapolating that out means Voyager would have shot over 320 torpedoes in the 23 years they were in the delta quadrant when they only had 38 on board.

On top of all of this, Janeway is a completely reckless captain. She continually puts her crew in harm’s way intentionally looking for resources, scouring through junk, investigating, exploring, trying to salvage Borg cubes. You name it, Janeway has had her crew recklessly do it, instead of the obvious… trying to find a way home. How that crew managed not to actually mutiny and kick her butt out of the captain’s chair is beyond me. Janeway is seriously the most reckless captain in Star Fleet. Far and above Kirk in recklessness.

Episode Writing Continuity Carelessness

In Season 4 Episode 23 entitled Living Witness, the Doctor is reactivated 700 years in the future on the Kyrian home planet in the Delta quadrant. There was never any discussion that this episode was built from any kind of temporal anomaly. The Doctor finds he is part of a museum exhibit and is called upon to clear Voyager’s name for being part of the ship that started their war. Ignoring the stupid war premise which really makes no difference one way or another, what this episode states is that the Doctor’s holo matrix is downloaded during an attack on Voyager and left on the planet for 700 years.

Let me pause here for a moment to catch everyone up since there have been some questions about this specific episode’s setup (which was, by the way, also inconsistent). Pretty much the entire series before and after the Living Witness episode drilled the point home time and time again that due to the doctor’s expanded holomatrix, ‘he’ was ‘unique’ and ‘uncopyable’. Because this point was driven home time and time again and because it was used as a plot device to ensure both the audience and the Voyager crew understood just how much the doctor was like a human, we are told the doctor is unique, individual, indispensable, irreplaceable and can die. There was even a Kes episode about this whole idea, but not the only one. When the rest of the crew was ready to reboot the doctor because his holomatrix had been degraded so badly, Kes stood by the doctor and vouched for his uniqueness, individuality and stood up for the doctor (when he couldn’t) to continue trying to keep him intact. If it had been as easy as making a backup copy and restoring a doctor copy, the ship could have used a backup doctor several times when the ‘real’ doctor goes on away missions, instead of leaving Kes and Paris to run Sickbay. They could have even used a backup copy to overlay his later degraded version on top and clean his matrix up. Yet, this never manifests not once in any episode. In fact, as I said, the writers did everything they could to ensure we understood that he was uncopyable, not even with the mobile emitter. So, what does this all mean? It means that the mobile emitter that was found contained the actual doctor, not a copy as was theorized.

What this story flaw also says is that there should no longer be an EMH on Voyager after the doctor has been left on this planet for over 700 years. It also means that no other episodes after this event should ever see this EMH program again. In another episode, Harry Kim tries to recreate the EMH after the doctor was thought to be lost during that episode, but after Kim fails, he leaves Paris to fend for himself in Sickbay. This means that there is exactly one doctor and he was left on Kyrian planet. The Doctor serves the Kyrians for a period of time, but eventually finds his way home to Earth 700-800 years after Voyager. Yet, in episodes after Living Witness, the Doctor is happily helping folks in Sickbay once again, including appearing in the final episode entitled Endgame.

Now, one could argue that Living Witness happened sometime later at the end of Voyager’s run, but then why is it in season 4? It also means that for at least some duration of Voyager’s trip, the Doctor EMH program was not available. Though, B’lana might have created a new rudimentary EMH, we never saw it. Yet, in Season 7, Episode 23 — Endgame, we see the Doctor come strolling through the Voyager party 23 years later. Assuming the episode Living Witness to be true, then this is a major continuity error. The doctor should not be in Endgame at all. He should still be deactivated on the Kyrian homeworld.

Let’s consider how it’s even possible that the mobile emitter was left (or was stolen) in Living Witness. Since there was only and ever one mobile emitter, that logically means the doctor should not have had the mobile emitter for any episode after that Living Witness (assuming we accept the ‘backup’ idea, which I don’t). Yet, we continue to see the mobile emitter used on episodes all the way to the very end when Voyager returns. This episode contains far too many consistency problems and should not have aired.

Lack of Season-wide Story Arc

Star Trek The Next Generation attempted to create a few longer story arcs. But, the writers never really embraced such arcs beyond the borders of an episode (or multi-part episodes). Though, some character relationship arcs did reach beyond the borders (i.e., love relationships, children, cultural rituals, marriages, etc), arcs related to alien races, ship resources, ship damage or astral phenomena (with the exception of the Q) were almost never carried forward. So, for example, in TNG, during season 7, the Force of Nature episode forced Star Fleet to institute a warp speed limited due to warp drive destruction of subspace. That speed limit arc carried through a few episodes, but was ultimately dropped and ignored during Voyager. It was dropped primarily because it didn’t help the writers produce better episodes. By forcing starships to travel at slower warp speed, nothing good came from this plot device. In fact, this speed limit would have only served to hinder Voyager in getting home. Clearly, the writers had not yet conceived of Voyager when TNG’s Force of Nature aired. Otherwise, the producers might have reconsidered airing this episode.

Also, because warp speed is a fairly hard to imagine concept in general, artificially limiting speeds in a series where fantasy and space travel is the end goal actually served to undermine the series. There were many ideas that could have created larger more compelling story arcs besides setting an unnecessary speed limit. The sole purpose for the speed limit, I might also add, was only to make Star Trek appear eco-friendly towards the inhabitants of the Milky Way… as if it even needed that moniker. I digress.

Even at the time when TNG was ending, other non-Trek series were beginning to use very large and complex story arcs. Yet, Star Trek TNG, DS9 and Voyager clung tightly to story arcs that fit neatly within a 42 minute episode border. This 42 minute closed border ultimately limited what appeared in subsequent episodes. Very rarely did something from a previous episode appear in a later episode unless it was relationship driven or the writers were hard-up for stories and wanted to revisit a specific plot element from a previous episode. In general, that was rare. In Voyager, it happens in the season 5 episode Course: Oblivion (which this entire episode was not even about Voyager’s crew) and which is a sequel to the season 4 episode Demon (where the crew lands on a Class Y planet and is cloned by a bio-mimetic gel). These types of story sequels are rare in the Star Trek universe, especially across season boundaries, but they did occasionally happen. Even though such stories might appear occasionally, Star Trek stayed away from season-wide or multi-season wide story arcs, with the exception of character relationship arcs.

Janeway’s Inconsistencies

The writers were not kind to the Janeway character. One minute she’s spouting the prime directive and the next she’s violating it. There is no consistency at all here. Whatever the story requires forces Janeway’s ethics out the airlock. The writers take no care to keep her character consistent, forthright, honest and fair. No, she will do whatever it takes to make the story end up the way the writers want. It’s too bad too because in the beginning, the Janeway character started out quite forthright. By the time Seska leaves the ship, I’m almost rooting for a mutiny to get Janeway out of the way. In fact, I actually agreed with Seska to a certain extent. Janeway’s number one priority was to protect the crew and make it safely back to the Alpha quadrant as timely as possible. Instead, Janeway feels needlessly compelled to galavant for 23 years all over the Delta quadrant making more enemies than friends, killing her crew one-by-one, destroying shuttles, using up torpedos, using up ship resources and generally being a nuisance.

Worse, Janeway’s diplomatic skills with alien races is about as graceful as a hammer hitting your thumb. She just didn’t get it. The Sisko character in DS9 got it. The Seska character got it. Janeway, definitely not. While she may have been trained to Captain the tiny Voyager ship, she had absolutely zero diplomatic skills. I’m guessing that’s why Star Fleet never tapped her to helm a Galaxy class ship and, instead, forced her into the tiny Intrepid class for scientific exploration.

I’m not even sure why Star Fleet tapped Voyager to go find the Maquis ship. While Voyager may be somewhat more maneuverable than a Galaxy class ship, a Galaxy class ship would have been better suited to find and bring back the Maquis ship in the first episode, not Voyager. So, even the series started out wrong.

Commentary

Time has also not been kind to the Voyager episodes themselves. Both the Next Generation and Voyager relied on the weekly episodic nature of the series. The 7 day span between airing of episodes gave viewers time to forget all about the last episode before the next one aired. This time gap helped the series.. a lot! But, in the age of DVD sets and Netflix where commercials are devoid and there’s no need to wait any length of time to watch the next episode, watching Voyager in rapid succession shows just how glaring the continuity flaws are. No, this format is definitely not kind to Voyager. It’s not even just the continuity errors. It’s stupid decisions. Like arbitrarily deciding that it’s perfectly okay to leave Holodeck simulations running even when the ship is running out of power with no way to replenish. Like firing yet another large volley of photon torpedoes at a Borg ship when you only have 38 on board. Like continually and intentionally sending shuttle crafts into known atmospheric disturbances only for them to be disabled and downed. Janeway is the very definition of reckless with her ship, with her command, with her crew and with their lives. Yet, no one on board saw it, commented or mentioned this. Seska came close, but she left the ship before she got that far with Janeway.

Overall, when it was originally on, it was more enjoyable. Today it’s a quaint series with many glaring flaws, no overall story progression and a silly ending. Frankly, I’m surprised this series actually ran for 7 years. It should have ended at about the fifth season. Basically, after Kes (Jennifer Lien) left and the series picked up Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), it all went downhill.

If anything is responsible for killing off the Star Trek franchise, it’s Voyager. Yes, Enterprise came after, but Enterprise was just too foreign to really make it as a full fledged Star Trek. It was really a casualty of Voyager instead of being to blame for the demise of Star Trek.

ABC’s Lost: What really happened?

Posted in entertainment, TV Shows by commorancy on March 15, 2014

For 6 years, we tuned in to find out what the next episode would be. For 6 years, we wondered as the premise got stranger and stranger. In the end, we finally see all of the plane crash victims that we knew together one last time in death. So, what really happened?

Common Theories

A lot of people theorize that they were dead the whole time. Others believe everything from seasons 1-5 were real events. Other theories are somewhere between these two. None of these scenarios fit exactly with what I believe happened. Keep in mind that these theories below are mine. If the writers choose to revisit this story and alter their vision of what really happened and how it happened, then that’s up to them. Any new stories they put forth could also negate the below theories. As the show sits today, here is my theory.

Were they dead?

Yes. They were dead before the plane crashed on the island. In fact, they probably died from a crash at sea. If they were supposedly dead, then where were they and what where we watching? Though they were dead from our Earthly plane of existence, they did seem very much alive. You’ll need to understand the writers’ use of the jumbo jet plane archetype is a literal metaphor (and pun) for carrying these people to the next ‘plane’ of existence. Once you realize that the plane is merely a metaphor, then you’ll understand the entire show. Even the title ‘Lost’ is both a pun and a foreshadowing of the main characters’ ‘awakening’ when put into context of the story.

That flight literally moved each of the victims to the next existence plane which allowed them to continue their lives right where they left off from their former reality (in excruciating detail), just as though the plane had really crashed. Let’s start off understanding that plane of existence. The next plane is supposedly the plane of imagination and creation (and as a way point for the next step in our journey). If this territory seems unfamiliar, you should probably research more on the 7 or 12 or 31 planes of existence theories. In the next plane from ours, you can create a realistic universe of your own choosing. So, the island represents this plane of existence. The island had rules because the person who imagined the island created those rules. It looked, smelled, felt and tasted like a real island because that plane of existence was just as real to those involved.

In the case of people new to that plane, they are not yet aware that they are dead (from the Earthly reality) and continue onward ‘living’ their lives as though they were still alive in the Earthly plane. The reason the physicality of the island mirrors our physical human reality so closely is that all people who recently die end up there. Because each person’s essence is so heavily tied to the Earth plane for so long, it’s natural to bring that familiarity into the plane of imagination and creation and then recreate those things most familiar exactly as it were (people and all). Hence, the Island.

The Glitch

In that plane of existence, things will be a little off kilter here and there (like the cat glitch in the Matrix). For example, the smoke monster, the island barrier, Jacob, people randomly appearing and disappearing on the island, items they need randomly appearing and disappearing, being cured of illness, time travel, magical events, etc. These are all manifestations of someone’s imagination and/or of being in that non-physical plane of reality. Because none of the people realized they were effectively in a dream reality, they never ‘woke’ up to it… all except Desmond. He didn’t wake up, but he could manipulate parts of that island reality. In fact, he may have been the ‘constant’ who unknowingly created the island from his imagination after having died sometime earlier. Assuming Desmond was the creator of the island, he couldn’t wake up before the rest of the characters or the Island might drastically change.

Note, the characters discount or disregard the glitching because that plane of existence is less rational than the Earthly plane. So, events that would seem way out of place here on Earth are more readily accepted in that plane. Acceptance of the glitching is part of the awakening process.

Why strand them there?

That’s a good question. Let’s understand that they would have ended up in that plane of existence simply by their physical body dying. However, for no other reason than the writers needed a place to put the plane crash victims to create this story, placing them all into Desmond’s plane of existence was as good a place as any. If you have a bunch of dead people, to the writers it seemed to make sense and it produced a good enough show.

But, they left the island!

Well, yes and no. Because that plane of existence can manifest anyone’s imagination, it’s easy to have characters end up back at home. That doesn’t mean they were really there. What the characters saw was merely a shadow world created by that character in the imagination plane. That’s why the real world always seemed just a little bit odd, somewhat unnatural and unreal. So, anyone they interacted with was simply a dream character. Because not one of the characters ever woke up, they never knew they could learn to manipulate their own world in any way they saw fit. But, if they had awakened, they would also know that they’re dead. So, for the writers, it would have revealed the ending too soon to have any one character actually ‘wake up’.

Some of the people died on the show

Yes, they did. But, they were already dead? Yes, those characters who died on the island suddenly realized they were already dead and moved on from that plane to the next plane earlier than the rest of the characters. Because ‘moving on to another plane’ is a different event from physically dying, all of the characters who thought they were still ‘alive’ perceived that person’s exit as a death. If they were to perceive another character’s death in any way other than by our plane’s means, they would wake up to the fact that they’re dead. It also makes perfect sense that some characters might figure it all out sooner than others. There’s no need to stay on the island once you know the truth of it.

What was the island?

Was the island a type of Purgatory? Not exactly. Purgatory assumes you believe in Christianity. Purgatory is defined as an intermediate state between death and Heaven. A place to purify before reaching Heaven. If the Island were Purgatory, that would assume all of the characters were destined for Heaven. In fact, there were plenty of characters there that didn’t seem to deserve entry to Heaven for the things they had done in life. But, who am I to judge that for them?

Instead, it’s better to adopt the wider view of planes of existence outside any single organized religion’s ideas. These views define planes as, yes, intermediate planes after death, but more than that. There are anywhere between 7 and 31 planes. I won’t get into further details about this topic as it’s well beyond the scope of this article. There are plenty of books describing these planes, what they are and why they exist.

Anyway, the Island is one of these planes and a type of ‘waiting room’ (if you subscribe to the Catholic view, it might be considered Purgatory) for people to make peace with their old life allowing them to ‘wake up’ to their new existence slowly before moving on. It’s a place to let you replay events from your physical life and unshackle yourself from the confines of a physical body to transition to the next plane. Think of the Matrix and waking someone up there. It’s kind of the same thing, but you get to wake up on your own rather than by taking a pill and finding yourself in a new reality immediately. The island is simply that stopover point that leads each of those people to the next step of their existence.

Note that during season 6, their existence was defined to be ‘Purgatory’, but by season 6 the characters were beginning to wake up. During seasons 1-5, the characters thought they were still physical. In their reality, that was all an illusion. The only thing real during seasons 1-5 was they were in that waiting room that appeared to be an island. In fact, they were in an alternate plane of existence where imagination and creation makes things appear real.

Why 6 years?

Understand that time in that plane of existence is meaningless. 6 minutes, 6 hours, 6 days or 600 years could all pass in the blink of an eye to us. Time doesn’t work the same in the next plane of existence. To us, we watched 6 years of episodes, but to the characters it may have seemed to happened in less then 30 days. Time is relative to where you are.

Why not all 250+ passengers?

Those specific few people were likely chosen by Desmond to live out their reality on his island or simply found their way to that island because Desmond wanted it to happen. The rest of the 250 passengers ended up in their own different realities, perhaps living out their own lives as if the plane had crashed, but others could end up making a world back at home with their families. The unseen victims of the crash made their own realities outside of the island reality and we didn’t get to see their lives unfold. Some of those people might also have moved on faster than those we saw on the island.

They weren’t dead until the very end?

Yes and no. They were dead in our reality. But, they weren’t dead in their plane of existence. A plane that is outside of our existence (or at least a plane that we cannot get to in our current tangible form). Because their bodies had died, their essence moved on in what appeared to be a body that looked, acted and dressed just like the living counterpart. The theory is that when you die, you continue to see yourself as your last physical body even in the next plane of existence. That is, until you slowly wake up to your new non-physical existence.

At the very end, the characters were finally awakened to their own Earthly death. A death that happened before the island. Once they awakened, they could realize the truth of it and return to the Earthly plane as ghosts. For whatever reason, they all awakened in unison, that or it was simply just time. Though, to them, the island was still just as real as any event on the Earthly plane. But, to the Earthly plane inhabitants where their physical bodies had died, they had died at sea in the plane and that’s all their Earth families ever knew.

In essence, Lost was a show about ghosts living in an alternate plane of reality.

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Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded (even Wikipedia) by the story within Bioshock Infinite. Wikipedia is supposed to remain neutral, yet the article for Bioshock Infinite is extremely biased towards Infinite containing a ‘great’ story. It most definitely isn’t ‘great’ by any stretch. For some odd reason, gamers (and critics) think what’s in Infinite is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right (or even a good) way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or desired in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful. Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliché device known as time travel via time anomalies to create and tell their (ahem) story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become a Deus Ex Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliché and poorly written. You want people to value and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip, then causes the conception of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Even worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Ultimately, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining the existence of Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddies, little sisters, big sisters or anything else that transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story in Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allows the film to have a very satisfying closure despite the inclusion of time travel. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful story at navigating time travel as a device within the story without creating a circular time paradox, while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way and a satisfying conclusion.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

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