TV Shows

Talking, Thinking, Threshold

For a couple of years, Firefly was the only screwed-by-the-network (I believe that’s the technical term) sci-fi TV show that I cared about. I can’t say I care about it less, now – and if I could, it would certainly be imprudent to do so – but I recently added another item to that ticket: Threshold, which aired on CBS in 2005. To be clear, Threshold is a very different kind of science fiction story than Firefly. In my opinion there is no meaningful way to compare them as such. I like both kinds of science fiction, just as I like many other, different kinds just as well. And while we are speaking, let me use this opportunity to harp on my favorite theme: One of the best things about webcomics is that they span so wide an area, and so many different styles and themes are covered. You will probably know what Firefly is about – a small crew of outcasts, making their live as freelance smugglers or mercenaries, in space, in a ‘verse that contains worlds with very different societies – but you will maybe not know Threshold, so here are the main points:

  • In our world, in our time (2005), an unidentified alien object, a probe ship, goes down over the Atlantic Ocean, in the vicinity of a Navy transport ship.
  • The probe emits strong visual, aural, and radio signals; and some radiation that can deform metal
  • The ship’s crew is affected in multiple ways: Some are disfigured and die, some go violently crazy and kill themselves or others, etc.
  • This multi-faceted infection spreads over to the US, the infected humans form a conspiracy to transform all humanity
  • Following a protocol that was created for worst-case scenarios, the US government forms a secret team to plan and apply measures to contain the threat (infection)
  • There is much strain on the team, and on its relations to other agencies, because the measures they need to apply are a conspiracy as well

I guess you could call this Serious Spy Drama meets Men In Black, which would offer an instant explanation for my love for Threshold. For all their thematic differences, Firefly and Threshold have a lot in common:

  • The visual effects are from decent up to pretty good, but not extraordinary, especially if compared to feature films which can spend a lot more time and money
  • The plot is solid, the pacing pretty fast, the narrative rhythm really good
  • The world-building is very consistent and makes sense in context
  • The characters are really good, and especially the mixture is excellent
  • The most important focus of the story is on character interaction and dialog (the style is quite different, though)

I love consistency in world-building more than scientific accuracy; I don’t care if the science is correct – whatever that may even mean in the context of speculative fiction – but I care if the behavior of the scientists and the processes used make sense (given that they are dramatized versions, not realistic depictions). And thinking about Threshold as I binge-watched it lead me to the observation that I love dramatic moments that involve people talking. Which is kind of curious, looking at the genres that I read or watch, which are all mostly about action and fast pacing: Science Fiction, Espionage, Techno-Thriller, Crime (Procedurals and Thrillers), etc.  With a couple of exceptions, I do not like genres very much that rely on talking per se. But my favorite examples of the genres I love are all, to an astonishing degree, about drama expressed as people talking (or occasionally, very noticeably not talking).

  • My favorite spy novels are the books by John Le Carre, my favorite crime thriller is The Silence Of The Lambs, my favorite naval history novels are the Master & Commander series by Patrick O’ Brian.
  • What I admire the most in Breaking Bad and The Good Wife are character interaction and dialog (though I’ll readily admit that I love TV shows with smart and sexy women).
  • The visuals in both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Kingsman are certainly awesome, but the best parts of each movie are, again, character interaction and dialog.
  • And my favorite webcomics combine character interaction and dialog with great visuals and cool action (most of the examples I’ve talked about in earlier post will fall into that category)

When it comes to dialog, webcomics seem to have severe disadvantages:

  • The word count is limited
  • If the limits of word count are actually tested, the comic can become visually uninteresting (wall of text)
  • The dynamic of the speech act cannot be depicted directly
  • There is no music

But excellent comics apply a couple of tricks to achieve dynamic and create drama when depicting people who talk:

  • Dynamic camera work can be simulated by panel composition and layout
  • Even few words can amount too much if they are emphasized by visual focus on the speaker or the listener
  • The effect of words can be conveyed by depicting the listener(s), and the effort to speak them by depicting the speaker
  • Good lettering can provide clues to context, emphasis, and meaning of the words that are spoken

A very good example for these techniques is the webcomic Validation, which updates twice a week with a three-panel strip. Most of the strips are about people talking while sitting around a table or standing in a group. Many strips show only a single person – the protagonist – sitting at a keyboard or thinking. None of these activities looks very dynamic in itself, but the depiction in the comic is very dynamic:

Set in a very different world, Space Mullet, which has many astonishing visual effect for epic establishing shots or dramatic action scenes, uses exploration of the setting as framing for discussions to make them more interesting, sometimes combined with great camera movement.

And quite different methods, all of them reminiscent of TV show or movie techniques, are used in Opportunities to create dynamic dialog pages:

There are many more examples in the webcomics that I love, and I could talk about these a long time – in fact, I plan to revisit this topic and talk about more examples in the future. But for now, I will leave it at that and ask you:

  • What do you think of the importance of dialog in action-oriented stories?
  • What do you like or dislike about dialog in (web)comics?
  • What are your favorite examples?

You can answer all these questions in the comments. You may have noticed that I changed the claim beneath the photo to Updates Every Other Tuesday, in an attempt to align promise and reality. So lets hope I will see you again in two weeks.