Friday, June 12, 2015

Reboot and "planned" fiction

I no longer watch television programs, but I'm somewhat aware of what programs are currently popular and how the stories on such series are told. Programs at present seem much concerned with continuity than they were back when I last had enough free time to spend sampling most of what was on the air (which would be circa 2001). Today's dramatic shows not only tend to feature continual character development but are more likely to explore the ramifications of one episode's events in another than the shows I knew.

Certainly, I do love continuity. Exploring continuity is part of what fascinated me about comic books and that same love for puzzling out the rules, backgrounds and backdrops of 90s television programs from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to ER kept me an interested viewer for many years. At some point, though, programs became much less episodic and show runners spoke more openly about the over-arching plots not only for a season of television but for the show's entire run; some shows which promised big mysteries with big answers stumbled because the creators didn't actually know the answers (or, sometimes, the questions): the X-Files; Lost; Battlestar Galactica. Even though there must be many factors which inhibit TV creators from keeping a firm grip on where the series' story is headed, viewers seem to expect a planned narrative from the creators. It's comforting, I suppose. Only today I saw the show runner of the new series Dark Matter declaring his show would have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." Quite a change from the days when shows were about 99.9% middle!

It seems now to be a forgone conclusion that a series should have a strong creative team with definite ideas about the program's tone, ongoing subplots, character development, themes and even the final episode might be considered before the first has aired. And now, let me talk to you about ReBoot.

Made in Canada, ReBoot began as a partnership between the USA's ABC network and Canada's YTV. Generated entirely on computers, ReBoot was itself supposedly a reality set within a computer, with various characters representing computer programs and commands. The leading character was Bob, a Guardian charged with defending the people of Mainframe from incoming games (wherein computer characters had to compete against the User) and threats such as viruses, notably the insane Hexadecimal, the always-scheming Megabyte and Megabyte's comical lackeys Hack & Slash. Bob was aided in his adventures by the wise old Phong, his love interest Dot, Dot's bratty hero-worshiping kid brother Enzo and Enzo's dog Frisket.

The first season of ReBoot is thoroughly forgettable. Between the limits of the technology which the creators were trying to master and the self-imposed limitations which ABC forced upon them, the program had noticeably thin characters, simple plots and very low stakes. Everything improved for the better in season 2, but ABC dropped them at the end of the season. After a year's hiatus the third season debuted on YTV and brought the show to a good conclusion (followed by two made-for-TV movies).

The great change which came with ReBoot's third year was not only the absence of ABC - thus, the show makers no longer had to consider the restrictive broadcast standards of US television - but a year-long storyline in which saw Bob taken off the table (having been exiled into the Web in the climax of season 2) and Enzo attempting to take his place as Guardian. However, after several episode of barely managing to keep Megabyte at bay and narrowly winning games, in the season's fourth episode Enzo lost a game (something Bob never did) and had his left eye gouged out (a level of violence ABC would never have permitted, especially against a child).

Looking at ReBoot in retrospect with all my love of continuity, part of what I admire is that the show didn't have a plan. Whatever the creators intended at the outset, they surely didn't count on the restrictions which ABC placed on them - that was something the show had to write a way around. Even then, their relationship with ABC had brought the program to wider audience than YTV could have managed, so losing ABC would have been a definite blow. And yet, for each problem the show encountered, the show runners made it seem as though it had been their plan all along. But thank goodness it wasn't!

In the first two season, Bob served as a rather bland protagonist. He was the good guy and primarily a very goody-goody good guy at that. Although he had begun to develop a little bit of snark in season 2, he remained pretty consistently bland up until Megabyte cast him into the Web at the end of season 2. And then, because of his absence, Bob became greater than he had been; with Bob gone, Megabyte roamed Mainframe freely and the characters faced their darkest nanos. Bob's bland heroism had become something greater - the time in which he served as Mainframe's Guardian was now an ideal, a Paradise Lost. Even the comical henchmen Hack & Slash sensed their antics were out-of-place in the darker themes of season 3, leading to this observation:

Slash: "I miss Bob."
Hack: "What?! Ssh! Ssh! Are you crazy?!"
Slash: "Bob always stopped us before we could do anything really bad. Now nobody does."

Bob's exit from the series was sudden and left the cast of characters (and presumably the viewers at home) reeling. But if it had been the intent to build towards Bob's season 2 exit and late season 3 return from the beginning, it wouldn't have served his character as well. I think if the writers had known from the outset he would be the great hero who would be lost, they would have written towards that exit so consciously that it would have been telegraphed. I would now be able to look back and remark, "Ah, here's some ground being lain for Bob's departure," when I think in that instance it's much better to be watching the program in the moment and on the same page as the cast. Likewise with Enzo's eye injury, which is foreshadowed three episodes before it happens, but wasn't something his character had otherwise been building towards. Prior to Bob's exit, Bob was simply the bland protagonist and Enzo was the precocious kid; changing circumstances benefited them immensely, but if that sense of approaching darkness had been in ReBoot from the start, then there would have been less for season 3 to contrast itself against.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the blandness of season 1 makes that year any more watchable, but I think the simplicity of ReBoot's early days was used to great effect on the show. This is really how I prefer to see continuity employed - something organic which takes into account the series universe's past, rather than being hung up about the universe's future.

Am I explaining this well? Are you at least familiar enough with ReBoot to nod in understanding? Are you blinking a message to me in Morse code or do you need some Visine (free for only 99.99.99!)? Let me know in the comments!


Craig Dylke said...

I follow your logic...

I just wish we got the END of the ReBoot saga.

Michael Hoskin said...

Indeed, and it's not like they didn't want to give it to us -- but just as ABC pulled out on them once, sadly YTV eventually pulled out too.

Kasius Klej said...

This is strictly off topic, yet here's a video clip that we want to share with all Carl Barks fans