Precinct 17Complications Ensue
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Saturday, May 07, 2011

A friend slipped me a copy of Ron Moore's pilot for PRECINCT 17. It's a cop show in a world where magic functions as tech.

And for this reason, I found it a bit tedious. The magic functions as tech. There is no mystery to it. Instead of cell phones, everybody has crystals that function, well, pretty much exactly the way cell phones do. The forensics is visually cool, but not really any cleverer than CSI.

I tend to think that what makes science fiction and fantasy resonate is a metaphor. The fantastic element speaks to something that is true in real life, but in a less graphic way. The werewolf represents our primal urges. The Frankenstein creature is technology run amok.

If there is no metaphor, and no mystery, then all you have is a corollary of Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic: if magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology, then it stops being magic.

Also, as Gene Roddenberry pointed out, you can't hang the solution to a mystery on tech. There is a pretty big reveal at the end of Precinct 17 that would be satisfying if we knew the rules of the show's magic. But we don't. So there's just a surprise, divided between "oh, it's him?" and "oh, so you can do that in this universe?" And the latter takes the wind out of the sails of the former.

I would happily watch a cop show in a world where magic functions. But then give me myths that resonate. LOST GIRL, for example, had cops and fae. But each of the fae stand for something human. They are character-centered stories based on human sins and urges personified by fae who take those sins and urges to extremes. What makes LOST GIRL worth watching is that the solution to the mystery is something emotionally satisfying. It's not based on, "Look! We happen to have a Fingerprint Fairy here, and she can solve our mystery."

CAPRICA, also by Ron Moore, was all about tech, but it was first of all about characters and their relationships. A father with more money and genius than sense tries to bring his daughter back to life so he can understand why she belonged to a fanatical terrorist cult... and creates nemesis. The fantastical element was great. But the rest of the story was equally compelling.

So maybe I'm being a little too philosophical. Precinct 17 failed for me, ultimately, because I didn't care about any of the characters. I felt I'd seen them all in other cop shows. And their problems were uninteresting. Magic, alone, does not warrant a story.


Interesting. I have a few thoughts.

First, I hate lumping sci-fi in with fantasy. The only real thing they have in common is the use of special effects.

Second, I hate the fantasy genre in general, and your post illustrates why. Magic is a polite word for bullshit. Stories that rely on magic have no clear limitations for the characters to work against. (And why LOTR, imho, sucks hard.) In sci-fi, there's at least an implication that we're dealing with the physically plausible given the proposed technology. The greater the plausibility, the harder the sci-fi.

Third, I think sci-fi works on a literal level, too. We live in a time in which the effects of science and technology become more and more relevant to us, even affecting our consciousness. Sci-fi is the genre that deals with that.

By Blogger David, at 9:20 PM  

100% spot-on analysis. The magic was just window-dressing on Yet Another Cop Show. Which is fine if you want to watch yet another cop show (and certainly provides the franchise that broadcast networks do so love). But 'fine' isn't the goal and special effects don't make up for story, so it left me wondering why they even bothered.

By Blogger kimshum, at 2:10 AM  

I can think of a perfectly good cop show with magic: Medium.* The characters were good, and the premise of the magic was pretty comprehensible: she could communicate with the dead, which often included the victims of her crimes.

Her powers often took away the mystery of who did the crimes, but the writers had other ways to deliver mysteries. One was if the victim never saw the killer, she'd have to investigate that based on things only the victim would know. Another was if we knew who the killer was, but didn't have a way to find evidence that would stand up in a court that didn't believe in seeing dead people. Yet another was if the victim was an unreliable witness, or if the perpetrator had powers that interfered with hers. Those paths meant the show had several ways to deliver drama.

But the core of the show was that -- in addition to the murder of the week -- the characters were interesting.

* OK, technically it's a district attorney's consultant show, and some people might not call the supernatural element "magic", but close enough.

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:42 AM  

When I heard most of the networks had ordered "Fairy Tale" pilots I immediately stopped working on mine ( more of a gritty cop show with slightly strange things that happen.) but after reading the pilot for Grimm and now this blog, I think I'll finish it.

By Blogger Cody, at 7:38 PM  

Read "Grimm" and "The Awakening" (zombies). Neither rocked my world. Still think Lost Girl works better.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:30 PM  

If there's something revealed about the nature of the magic at the end that the audience isn't privvy to, then that's not just bad fantasy, that's bad drama; It's not playing fair with the audience.

There was a movie I saw years ago, "Cast a Deadly Spell" ( which was essentially, a 40's gumshoe mystery in a world where magic was commonplace. Not replacing technology, just common. The private dick, Harry Lovecraft (!), refuses to use magic in his investigations. To him, I guess, magic was a cheat, a short cut, dulled the mind by making things too easy. A metaphor for our dependence on technology in reverse.

And I agree Lost Girl rocks! Can't wait for season two.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:55 PM  

After my last post on this topic, I realized it could be construed as a slight towards Alex's book The Circle Cast. So let me say that's not how my comment was intended.

The use of magic makes complete sense in old or ancient mythology, such as the Arthurian legends or Homer, etc. With his book, Alex was merely expanding on that world, not unlike the way Gardner expanded on the world of Beowolf with Grendel. During the times that these myths were born, the idea of magic made complete sense.

My criticism is directed at more modern, original stories based on magic, like LOTR, Harry Potter, and "Precinct 17." In these cases, the use of magic seems completely arbitrary.

By Blogger David, at 2:45 PM  

@David, I didn't take it that way.

Stories that rely on magic have no clear limitations for the characters to work against : THE CIRCLE CAST is all about the limitations that Morgan has to work against. It is among other things about the costs and dangers of dealing with elemental powers.

Huh, maybe you'd like it!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:59 PM  

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