Dramatic Dissonance

In my reviews of Star Trek Picard, I’ve started using the term ‘dramatic dissonance’ to describe something that we’re seeing on-screen. This particular phenomenon or quality may already have a term to describe it – if it does, I don’t know what it is, so for now I’m going to use ‘dramatic dissonance’ (to mimic the phrase ‘dramatic irony’). And while I’ve started using this term in my Star Trek Picard reviews, it’s something I’ve seen in lots of other shows too – like Star Trek Discovery and recent Doctor Who – so I thought I’d write a blog post about it in order to define it more clearly.

Dramatic dissonance is when the reactions of the characters to each other, or to the events of the story, are different to the audience’s reaction to the characters or to the events of the story.

Here’s an example of this: one character says something, and several other characters around them consider it a very awkward thing to say, or a faux pas, but the audience doesn’t think that it’s an awkward thing to say.

Here’s another: one character does something (it could be anything), and all of the characters around them think that this character is a genius for doing it, but the audience isn’t impressed by it at all.

This second example is one we’ve seen a lot in both Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery – in fact this second example is often a way of determining whether a character is a Mary Sue. (Other characters will just think that they’re brilliant no matter what they do.)

Dramatic dissonance is a bad quality for a show to have. It is, by its very definition, unrealistic, and if a show has it, the audience will sense something is amiss, even if they can’t quite put it into words. The audience can sense it because things in the show don’t seem to make sense.

I’m not sure I could exactly say what the origins of dramatic dissonance in a show actually are, but I don’t think it’s an acting problem – I think it comes from the writing. It may come from writers thinking too much about ‘How do I want this character to react?’ rather than ‘How would they react?’.

Star Trek Picard – Series 1 Episode 1 – I didn’t hate it

I did not like Star Trek Discovery, and if any more series’ of it are made I won’t be watching them. Because of that I expected Star Trek Picard to be pretty shit too – they didn’t seem to improve from series one to series two of STD (yes that is what we’re calling it – if they didn’t want it to be called that, they should have thought about the name a bit more), so I didn’t expect STP to be an improvement over STD.

But actually I didn’t mind the first episode. There were many likeable things about it. I like the basic premise of the plot: perhaps there are more androids out there like Data, and perhaps they can reverse the image that androids have as a result of the Mars incident. I really liked the interview between Picard and whoever that woman was – the interviewer was a twat, which is quite realistic. I also liked the improved action sequences – that’s one of the things that I always find quite jarring when I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation – any kind of combat in that just looks painfully unpainful. In this first episode of STP, when characters hit each other, it actually looks like they’re hitting each other.

The stand-out moments in the episode were the scenes between Picard and Data – both Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner have still got it. I’m very impressed that Brent Spiner can so perfectly recreate the performance of Data. It is, though, unfortunate that these were the best parts of the episode – it kind of shows that none of the newer characters are as good as the old ones. It goes to show the magic that The Next Generation had.

It’s clear that this series is going for a serialised format, rather than an episodic one. It seems to have worked for the first episode. I’m not sure how well this works for Star Trek overall, though – it didn’t work for STD – as we see more episodes, we may find that it doesn’t work for STP either. The episodic format works well for Star Trek because of the basic premise of the Star Trek series’: some people in a spaceship exploring the galaxy. You can have an ensemble cast, and in each episode different members of the ensemble cast become the main characters in different, only loosely-connected stories. It’s an ideal format for developing rich characters and a rich universe – which is what Star Trek fans like. Star Trek Discovery departed from this, and that’s a big part of what made the series bad: Michael Burnham was the main character of the series and so the main character of every episode, but they still travelled from planet to planet – this meant that Michael Burnham had to be written as impossibly talented, and so was ultimately a Mary Sue. We were just following one impossibly brilliant character around as she solved every problem and everyone else just basked in her perfection. Had Star Trek Discovery had an ensemble cast, and in each episode we followed a different member of that cast, it would probably have been a lot more enjoyable. In fact the few times where STD did do this were often the best episodes.

So maybe STP will have the same problem; maybe it won’t. So far, it seems fine. And I think that’s because so far this show has been set on Earth, where it’s more believable that a single person could go around hunting for the answer to a mystery.

There were a few things that I didn’t like about the episode. The main one actually is the theme music. Fuck I hate that theme music. It’s not quite as bad as the theme music for STD, but it’s fairly close. I don’t know why there’s a desire in the world of television production at the moment to make this kind of theme music – it’s everywhere – but it’s stale, lifeless, and meaningless. And it’s completely wrong for Star Trek. Why can’t we have something with a proper fucking melody? It should be that after I’ve watched a single episode of a new Star Trek series, I can hum the theme tune – it should be that memorable. Bring back the militaristic, marching band music from old Star Trek. It worked for The Orville; it can bloody work for Star Trek Picard.

I also didn’t much like Isa Briones’ performance as Dahj. It was a bit over-the-top, and jarred with the other performances. Though she wasn’t helped by what was, at times, very cheap dialogue. It seems that the way TV dialogue is written nowadays is different to how it was written in the TNG era.

This episode also had some linguistic absurdities – much like STD, but far fewer, and slightly less egregious. At one point a character says ‘Flesh and blood android’ … so … a human then? Android just means ‘in the shape of a human’, so a flesh and blood thing in the shape of a human is just a human. When we talk about androids in reference to robots, we are using ‘android’ as an abbreviation of ‘android robot’ – ‘android’ is an adjective that has become a noun. So once again, it seems like the Star Trek writers aren’t doing their research. But on this occasion, I can overlook it, as perhaps by the year that this episode is supposed to be set, ‘android’ exclusively means a robot made of metal and wires.

So some good, some bad. It wasn’t the best episode of Star Trek I’ve ever seen – not by a long way – but it was far from the worst too.

Star Wars Is Dead – Part 1: Fan fiction pretending to be a reboot pretending to be a finale

Okay, it’s taken me longer to get round to the first part of this series than I expected, but let’s go.

This film is a massive fuck you to The Last Jedi.

This film was filled with retcons. I was actually almost impressed with the number of retcons in this film. I was also amazed at the kind of retcons we got. Some of the retcons were of the kind we’re used to seeing, where something that was possible in a previous film is now just not possible, and next to no explanation is given. Some of the retcons were of a different kind – which I’ve been calling ‘narrative retcons’ (which may not be the best name), where the act of undoing or replacing something is woven into the narrative – this kind of retcon seemed to be used to change the direction and style set-up by The Last Jedi. I didn’t even realise such ‘narrative retcons’ were possible before watching this film.

Now, before I start going through all of the retcons in this film, I want to assert that all retcons are bad. Having retcons in your film or television series or book is always bad – having them always makes your creative work lower quality than if it did not have them. Because fundamentally, a retcon is a discontinuity. (‘Retcon’ is an abbreviation of ‘retroactive continuity’, and was originally used to describe when the creator of a creative work – whether they’re an author or a film director or a film producer – either added something into a sequel work, or said something outside of any of the creative works in the series, that changes the meaning, or the sequence of events, the history, or the underlying physics or metaphysics, seen by the audience in the creative work, so as not to contradict something that is seen in the sequel work. Retcons are an attempt at providing continuity across the series of works. Because of this we might naïvely see them as continuities, rather than discontinuities. But the very fact that we the audience have to change our understanding of a part of the original creative work, so that on second viewing of the series as a whole it appears to have a continuity, means that there IS a discontinuity in our understanding of the story. In short, a retcon asks the audience to pretend they didn’t notice a thing from the previous parts of the story. A retcon is an attempt at giving the story continuity at the expense of the continuity of the audience’s understanding. So it is a discontinuity. In addition to this, the overwhelming majority of retcons are imperfect, and in their attempt to remove an inconsistency in the story, they just end up creating one or more other inconsistencies – as was the case with this film.) Discontinuities pull the audience out of the story – whether it’s a book or a television series or a film, a discontinuity reminds the audience that the world of the creative work is not real. Discontinuities lessen the immersivity of a story – they are the antagonists of immersivity. (This is why world-building is such a big part of writing science fiction and fantasy – you’ve got to make the audience believe that the world they are reading about could be real. If there are inconsistencies in your world design, it makes your world less believable.) Every time I see a discontinuity in a film, I am reminded that I am sitting in a cinema. This is not what I want. In a science fiction or fantasy film (or quite frankly any film), I want to forget that the real world exists – for between one and a half and three hours I want to imagine that the world of the film is all that exists, and I imagine that this is what a lot of the fans of these films want. Thus, all retcons are bad.

This is why I said, in the video I made about Episode IX before it came out, that I thought there was no possibility of this film being a good film. It either had to go with what it had been given from The Last Jedi, which was shit (that’s for another rant), or it had to retcon lots of things from the previous films, which would also have been shit because retcons are always bad. Whatever this film did, it would end up being shit.

But okay, onto the actual retcons. The main thing to point out here is that this film retconned all of the big things introduced in The Last Jedi. I would have thought that anyone who liked The Last Jedi would have hated this film because of that.

Firstly, the obvious one: in The Last Jedi it’s revealed that Rey’s parents are not anyone of significance within the galaxy. It’s also implied that they weren’t Force-users. This was massively, massively retconned in The Rise Of Skywalker (fuck I hate that title). Not only were Rey’s parents not ‘nobody’, they were very much ‘somebody’ – in fact they were some of the somebodiest ‘somebodies’ in the entire galaxy, because Rey is a grandchild of Emperor Palpatine.

Now, I personally don’t dislike this idea (other than the fact that it is a retcon – I would have liked this had they done the proper setup for it, but they didn’t, and now it’s a mess), but for those people who did like The Last Jedi, this must be pretty annoying. Defenders of The Last Jedi often exclaimed that it was a good thing that Rey was not related to any of the big Force-using families – why did everyone have to be related to everyone in this galaxy? Why did Force powers have to be inherited? Are the defenders of The Last Jedi annoyed by this change?

I don’t dislike the idea of this – I think had they intended this to be the case from the beginning, I think it could have been done very well. But the execution is hot trash. In TROS, after Rey finds out that she’s the grandchild of Palpatine, Kylo Ren uses the ‘true from a certain point of view’ angle (it’s pretty lazy writing to just do that one again) to show how what he said in TLJ wasn’t technically wrong. This means that Kylo Ren knew who Rey’s parents were back in TLJ – so he lied … … but … why? What reason did he have for lying at that point? As far as I can tell, there is none. (Also, if indeed Kylo Ren did find this out in TLJ, his reaction to it was remarkably unsurprised. This shows again how retcons are bad – expressions given by actors in previous scenes now no longer make sense.)

The problems go further than this. This film tries to retroactively explain Rey’s astonishing Force powers by linking her to Palpatine. Of course, one of the main criticisms of Rey from the last two films is that she’s a Mary Sue – she can just use the Force very well despite having no training. Connecting Rey to Palpatine, and indicating that that’s where her extraordinary powers come from is an attempt to un-Mary-Sue-ify Rey. But Episode VII is called ‘The Force Awakens’, and the message from that film is very much that the Force has ‘awoken’ in Rey (something which they continue leaning into in TLJ). But if Rey’s powers are inherited from Palpatine, how did they awaken? She had them all along. This change undermines the premise of this trilogy.

Okay, secondly: Snoke. This is one of the retcons that I class as a narrative retcon. Snoke remains dead in this film – they didn’t undo that. But they did undo the big thing that was done in TLJ. In TLJ, the Big Bad, the final boss, was killed using a very unsubtle play on words. This was hailed as revolutionary by film aficionados. We all expected that Snoke was going to be killed off at the end of the third film – that’s how it always goes – that’s one of the tropes of these kinds of films. Shock, he dies in the second film.

This film didn’t bring Snoke back, but it did undo the effect of killing him off. Killing Snoke meant that there was no Big Bad for Episode IX. Except … in the end … there was – this film just decided to bring back Palpatine instead. One Big Bad had been killed off, so they just brought in another one instead. The effect of killing off the Big Bad was nullified.

So this is a ‘narrative retcon’. They didn’t just straight-up bring Snoke back, but they changed the narrative to put the overarching story back into the place that it would have been had Snoke’s death not happened.

But this retcon goes deeper than this, almost in a way that suggests J. J. Abrams was insulted by the killing-off of Snoke, because this film completely removes Snoke as a character from these films. Early on in TROS, when Kylo Ren goes to visit Sheev in hospital, we see a large tank in the dark room where they keep Palpy. In this tank, we see several Snoke bodies. This means that Sheev literally created Snoke. And when Sheev says ‘I am every voice you’ve ever heard.’ (something like that – it’s been a few weeks), he must either mean that Snoke was a real person but who was Palpatine’s puppet, or Snoke was just under the direct control of Palpatine, using some other new Force power. Either way, Snoke only existed for the purpose of swaying Kylo Ren, probably only existed for a few years, and had no free agency. He effectively didn’t exist. That’s quite a monumental retcon.

Thirdly, the Holdo Manoeuvre. This was a full-on retcon. It was also a fuck you to fans, because they actually had a character ask a question that they knew fans would ask if they didn’t do this retcon: ‘Why not just use the Holdo Manoeuvre against Sheev’s fleet?’.

The response to this, from Finn, was ‘That’s one in a million.’ (something like that). This is the laziest fucking writing I’ve ever seen. He might as well have just said ‘Nah’. The Last Jedi introduced something into the Star Wars universe that was world-breaking. The existence of this as a thing that can happen means that a large number of events should have turned out differently, if this is to be a consistent universe. And the explanation we’re given as to why this thing doesn’t happen all the time is essentially just ‘it doesn’t’, which isn’t a fucking reason at all.

I have never seen such lazy fucking writing – why do you bother making films at all if you can’t be bothered to think about these things?

Those were the three big things from The Last Jedi that were retconned, but there were lots of other retcons too.

The biggest retcon of the entire film, of course, is Palpatine. At the start of this film, Palpatine is not dead. He did not die at the end of Episode VI (or he died and came back to life – since we don’t know the details the distinction is somewhat arbitrary).

Now, even before this film came out, I said, as did many others, that bringing Palpatine back was not a good idea. Palpatine being alive means that he didn’t truly die in Episode VI, which undermines the plot of Episode VI. At the end of Return Of The Jedi, all of the main characters celebrate the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of Palpatine (and consequently the fall of the empire). But this is now a hollow victory, because they didn’t truly kill Palpatine at all. This film completely changes the context and tone of the ending to ROTJ – the characters may be celebrating, but now we the audience know that they should instead be looking for Palpatine, either to kill him properly or to prevent him from coming back. The characters celebrate, but we the audience do not.

No explanation is given for how Palpatine survived – in true J. J. Abrams fashion. All we get is a repeat of Palpatine’s earlier line: ‘The Dark Side is a path to many abilities that some would consider unnatural.’ While this is not an explanation, it does reveal another (partial) retcon. This means that Sidious used the Force to stay alive – he did not just happen to survive by natural means. In the Prequels, Sidious says that only Darth Plagueis knew of how to cheat death using the Dark Side of the Force. So apparently, Sidious figured it out on his own at some point between the Prequels and the Originals. That’s not impossible according to the Star Wars universe’s own rules, so it’s not a full-on retcon, but we the audience know that this is a recent change, rather than a fact of the universe that was intended all along, so it still sticks out.

The main side-effect of Sidious being alive is that it undermines the finality of death in these stories. This is a problem that can exist in any story that brings characters back from the dead – either by making that physically possible in the world of the story, or by pretending that they were never dead in the first place. This is advice that writers are often given. Tension and suspense are created in your story because the reader or viewer does not want the characters to fail or to lose or to die – the audience has investment in the characters. Bringing characters back to life in your story ultimately removes death as a possibility – after all, if one character can come back once, surely any character can come back any number of times. It removes the stakes, and thus undermines the tension. We no longer fear that our protagonist may die in their fight, because if they do they can just come back to life.

And this is a problem we see in this film too. Sidious dies again in this film, but is there anything to stop him coming back again? Will he just come back whenever the franchise is in trouble? Death can no longer be a permanent victory against evil – the protagonists cannot win.

More on character-based retcons: this film gave us General Pryde. This I think is by far the most interesting, and funniest, of the retcons in the film. One of the complaints about The Last Jedi was that it undermined General Hux as a threatening villain. Hux was used as a comedy character. This made it very difficult to use Hux as a true villain in TROS, because we wouldn’t have taken him seriously. I think J. J. Abrams knew this, and that’s why we got General Pryde, played by Richard E. Grant. General Pryde is just another menacing First Order commander – on paper he is no different to Hux – but because we haven’t seen him be the butt of jokes in TLJ, he can actually be menacing – we the audience take him seriously. Pryde is a replacement for Hux.

This is another ‘narrative retcon’. The existence of Pryde doesn’t contradict anything we’ve seen before, nor does it change the meaning of anything we’ve seen before, but it does reverse the effect of TLJ by giving us a new secondary villain. It seems two villains from the previous film were replaced: Snoke was replaced with Palpatine, and Hux was replaced with Pryde. We now have our new primary and secondary villains.

The existence of Pryde isn’t interesting just because it is this different kind of retcon, but also because in this film, General Pryde shoots and kills General Hux. This was amazing when I saw it in the cinema (not in a good way) – they actually had General Hux’s replacement shoot General Hux! The replacement killed off the original! As retcons go, that is bold.

They killed off Pryde at the end of the film. (I don’t know why – he could have been a good villain for future films – maybe he’ll come back from the dead too.) But I wonder if there’s a hidden meaning here. The Last Jedi made Hux an unusable character; in the end it was Pryde / pride that killed him, and then Pryde / pride dies. Is General Pryde a jab at Rian Johnson? Johnson has aggressively defended The Last Jedi on Twitter ever since it came out – he has, it seems, always been proud of the film. Is Abrams saying that it was Johnson’s pride that killed Hux, and in the end pride dies because TLJ was hated by a lot of fans? I’ve heard stranger fan theories, and it would explain why this new general is called Pryde of all things.

While I’m on The First Order, there was another retcon there, and in some ways this is the worst one. In this film it is revealed that Palpatine has got a huge fleet of ships on Exegol. This fleet is bigger and more powerful than any other ever seen at any other point in the Star Wars films. Every ship in it is both a Star Destroyer and a Death Star (I’ll come back to that issue later). This fleet is more powerful than The First Order fleet was even before the destruction of Starkiller Base (gosh that seems like a long time ago now), since every five ships of this fleet is essentially another Starkiller Base. This fleet is part of what’s called The Final Order.

But what’s confusing is that Snoke, who apparently created the First Order, was a literal creation of Palpatine. Everything Snoke is and was was given to him by Palpatine. So was the First Order just part of the Final Order all along? As far as I can remember they have the same uniform. And when Palpatine reveals his fleet, thereafter there appears to be no difference between the First Order and the Final Order. General Pryde somehow gets from a First Order ship onto a Final Order ship – we never see how, and no-one in-universe seems to question it, so apparently none of them see any difference between the two. The Knights of Ren (when they make an appearance) also apparently switch from the First Order to the Final without any confusion. As far as I can tell, the First Order and the Final Order are one single organisation.

And this makes me wonder: do the people in the First Order know that they’re part of the Final Order? Some of them must do, surely, but apparently not Kylo Ren, otherwise he’d’ve know that Sidious was alive since Episode VII. This is a massive great inconsistency right in the middle of the film.

Also, how on earth does the Final Order survive out there on Exegol? They appear to have thousands of enormous ships. I know some people have done calculations for how many people must be on those ships – I can’t remember what they’ve said, but it could easily be tens of thousands on each one. There are potentially tens of millions of people living out there on Exegol, waiting for Sidious to do whatever he’s going to do. How do they live? Exegol doesn’t look like a planet that produces much food. And are all of these people people that they’ve taken from other parts of the galaxy and brought to Exegol to be trained as Stormtroopers? Is this film telling me that Sidious and his gang were able to bring tens of millions of people to Exegol over the years, and no-one either followed them or tried to escape once there? No-one sent out a covert signal to the rest of the galaxy?

Also among the retcons were the Knights of Bloody Ren. They’re back … although actually, are they? Have we ever even seen them? I think we saw them in a flashback in TFA or TLJ – they didn’t really do anything – they just stood there, as far as I can remember. I think that’s all we’ve ever seen of them. And I think we only see them in two scenes in this film – once on Kylo Ren’s First Order ship, and then once on Exegol, fighting Kylo Ren. This is sort of a retcon, in that they’ve been retconned into existence after being conspicuously out of existence. I’d reckon they were included in this film just because fans would have questioned it if they weren’t, but their inclusion is just baffling. We still know nothing about them. We don’t know who they are or what they want. And we can’t figure out what they want here, because their decisions don’t seem to make any sense. In the previous two films we were given the sense that they were very loyal to Kylo Ren, even though we never saw them. In this film, apparently, even though I don’t know how they know that Kylo has changed sides, they somehow do, and instead decide to serve the Emperor – so apparently not that loyal to Kylo in the end. So in the end, the Knights of Ren were completely fucking pointless. We still don’t even know what ‘Ren’ means.

And then finally (yes, we’re finally there), there were some retcons to Luke and Leia. Leia was now a Jedi all along, apparently, which explains how she was able to train Rey, but is not sufficient for how she was able to survive in space without any kind of spacesuit. Luke was also made more Jedi-master-like in this film, perhaps in a direct response to fans.

Furthermore, as part of this film’s ‘fuck you’ to TLJ, when Rey throws her lightsaber into a fire, Luke catches it, and they have him say the line ‘The weapon of a Jedi deserves more respect.’ – that’s a direct response to fans hating it when Luke threw his lightsaber over his shoulder in TLJ.

I’m sure there are more retcons than that, but those are all the ones I wrote down. You see why now I’m having to write out my thoughts on this film over several blog posts and videos – this blog post is almost 4000 words long, and this is just the retcons in the film.

These retcons alone mean that this film is incoherent, and the Star Wars universe is broken. This is not a universe where things make sense. You cannot anticipate what characters might do, because it is not based on the things that have so far been possible in the universe, any reasonable approximation of realistic logistics, or previously established character traits and motivations. It all just happens. Any future films and television shows cannot receive any of the benefits of being part of a shared universe, because they aren’t – a shared universe depends on consistency.

If there had been no other problems with the film, the existence of all of these retcons alone would have made it a disastrous film. As it was, there were loads of other problems.