There’s two reasons why us Martians like our old films, books, and TV series. For one, the old stuff is easier to find and quote or clip from for free; you can even often watch old TV in its entirety on YouTube for free, provided you don’t mind the low resolution (and as writers, of course we don’t). Sure, I could dissect some writerly aspect of Game of Thrones, and many of you will catch the references, but for those of you who haven’t seen it you’d have to go buy it to follow me – and if I tried to clip more than a few seconds I could expect a queue of angry copyright lawyers outside my door tomorrow morning. As for books, I can’t even rely on readers being familiar with the latest bestseller list these days. I’m fairly well-read, but I only recognised two names on this week’s list – Grisham and Kinsella – and only one book I fancy reading – The Power. But if I write about Moby Dick or Casablanca – well, there’s a good chance you already know those works – you certainly should! -, but if not you can also easily find a copy or online detailed notes and analyses for free. For TV and movies, I can clip interesting scenes for you without the copyright police chasing me. In short, the old stuff is more accessible, and since I like to show you what I’m writing about rather than just tell you (qv!), that makes them more attractive.
The second reason we use older works is more subtle. Every current book and movie is very polished and has high production values, and it’s sometimes hard to see through all that to what the writer was originally thinking of. With older material, it’s more like standing directly behind the writer’s shoulder. When we study Jane Austen, we see a genius making up the rules as she goes along; there were no creative writing courses, no textbooks – Austen not only mastered her science, she invented it. When we watch Citizen Kane, we see Welles try things out, fail, try again, succeed, build on that and painfully generalise. If you’re a scientist, old writing is your laboratory: it’s the place you dissect the way things are done. Really, that’s the whole justification for this blog and the “Martian” project: we Martians look at what writers have done in the past, we stand behind them, frown at the crossing-outs, chart what was going through their heads at the time, watch as they themselves decide the best way to do things. Try doing that with Game of Thrones: I guarantee you’ll hit a wall of perfectly designed music, effects, cinematography, brilliant acting, millimetre accurate direction, and a team of talented writers, each covering up the others’ thought processes and mistakes. To a writer, GoT is uninteresting exactly because we can’t see the joins.
Ultraviolet was a Channel 4 British TV series from the mid-90s written by Joe Ahearne. Ostensibly it was about vampires, and that seems cliched nowadays, but it was only a few months after the premiere of Buffy and three years after the film of Interview with a vampire, and yonks before Twilight, so it was an innovation at the time. But actually, I don’t think it would be cliched even now, because Ultraviolet never mentions the v-word. People talk about bites and reflections and blood diseases and sunlight, but yer-actual vampires are pretty scarce. It’s as if Ahearne recognised that there was a cliche growing, and wanted to future proof his script (a valuable instinct for a writer; we should always keep at least half-an-eye on posterity). The result is disassociation: the viewer knows these are vampires, but doesn’t think of them as such. All that dracula-has-risen-from-the-dead baggage is checked at the door, and we watch as if we’d never heard those stories. This dissociation is reflected in the science-vs-occult themes. Some things are explained, and (especially through the Susannah Harker character) there’s a big emphasis on science; but so much that is clearly impossible is simply taken for granted. Probably the team have no explanation for the creatures breaking the laws of optics and not being able to be recorded, for example, but they have more urgent things to worry about; it’s important, but it can wait.
In the first episode, the never-knowingly-overplayed Jack Davenport is a policeman whose friend suddenly disappears. There are odd happenings: a suspect vanishes from a crime scene even though there are CCTVs in the area; Davenport witnesses what appears to be a state-sanctioned assassination; and he is contacted by government agents pretending to be cops and who have all the paperwork but who clearly aren’t, and who carry guns with built-in cameras and carbon-tipped bullets. But there’s no clear evidence of what it’s all about. In the following scene, you can see the moment Davenport gets it. We know from his later actions that he is convinced – impossible though it is, he believes there really are vampires. Thus the audience’s own scepticism is suspended – always a difficult thing with sci-fi and horror. In the church, we see him work all that out – he focusses on the Roman letter V and you can see his brain working. But he goes on denying it to Harker, Elba and Quast. Why? because he’s stubborn. In short, the plot device and his character are working perfectly in tandem. As they should be. The dialogue is a bit clunky but we can see what Ahearne is doing, we can see him make structural and dramatic decisions as he goes.
Clip from Ultraviolet episode one.
The moral here is that it’s not what you say that makes a cliche, but how you say it.
You may be able to find the whole series of UV on YouTube for free. I recommend it. As you see from the clip, it’s not great writing – but it sometimes is really quite good.