The Vexing Question of what is Important
Long-time readers or occasional browsers of this blog might remember that in the past I've explored the subject of time-travel and how a huge number of plots based around it make very little sense. I've also talked before about the level of 'suspension of disbelief' and how it varies from one person to another. Well, something quite recently caused me to revisit those opinions and have another little think about them.
Let's not beat about the proverbial bush here- I'm talking about 'Rosa', the recent Dr Who episode featuring Rosa Parks, which has already been hailed in many circles as a modern classic. Now, I'm not going to say there wasn't a lot to like in there- it was certainly good drama and the timing (yes, I'm looking at you, Ryanair) was so perfect that you could almost believe the Doctor herself had done a bit of cheeky engineering of the TV schedules. Also we had the 'is the Doctor Banksy' gag which I hope they revisit because the concept is a lot of fun.
The 'problem'- and I went back and put quotes around that because I'm not even sure it is a problem- is that as a science-fiction story in general, and a Dr Who story in particular, it was nonsense. There's a very good reason that the show doesn't generally do 'making sure history happens properly' stories, which is that quite beside the fact that deciding what history should and shouldn't be could be construed as somewhat megalomaniacal, it's very hard to make them make sense. (For why, the two 'about time' posts linked up there go into a lot more detail). The plot of 'Rosa' was full of more holes than a slice of Leerdammer, but to address the simplest, we're asked to believe that the US Civil Rights movement would have been irrevocably derailed if Rosa Parks had not made her protest on that exact day. Were I the sort to use such language, I would almost call the suggestion that she wouldn't have plucked up the courage to do what she did the next time the bus was full 'problematic'. But I won't make that claim, because it's patently obvious that the writers intended to force the Doctor and her Companions into the situation of engineering a horrible, uncomfortable situation for the greater good.
That's not exactly a new idea in sci-fi- the classic example being the original Star Trek's 'The City on the Edge of Forever' - but it's a good one. However, getting the characters so closely involved in the historical story opens up a huge can of temporal worms (not to mention that whole business with the Reapers which exist largely to explain why the Doctor doesn't do... exactly what happens in 'Rosa'.)
So, as I was watching the episode, it's safe to say I was eye-rolling a bit. As the sort of person who gets out his pencils to calculate average walking speeds before deciding how long it takes a character in a story to walk from one place to another, the various plot holes were deeply annoying me. We'd seen before that when popular shows that are generally of a high quality do this the fans are up in arms, a good example being the teleporting characters and supersonic ravens in the penultimate series of Game of Thrones. So once the episode finished, I took a look online to see the reaction. It was, of course, seemingly nothing but page upon page of fulsome praise. For what appears to have been the vast majority of viewers, the drama the story set up and the message it delivered massively outweighed any plot issues to the extent that nobody even mentioned them.
In part, it's indicative of the online climate these days that I decided not to bring it up at the time. There were already a few of those depressingly predictable comments flying about that anyone who didn't think the story was an all-time classic must by definition be a drooling, eye-rolling bigot, and the last thing an obscure author needs it to be dumped into that particular pit. But leaving that aside, it really got me thinking about why 'Rosa' got away with it. Is it simply the case that if your story's message is strong enough (or to spin it the other way, politically correct enough) you can get away with it being deeply implausible even within its own rules? We might draw a parallel with 'Zootopia', which pushes a very hard anti-prejudice message and was critically well-received, despite the fact that its 'races' were predator and prey animals, the latter of which have extremely good reasons to be wary of the former.
Perhaps the answer is that the most important thing is to stay true to your own goals. The late, great Roger Ebert was a master of this philosophy, judging films not just on how 'good' they were, but how successful they were in doing what they set out to do. Thus the latest Russ Meyer 'trash' might still be well-received if it was successfully trashy. A slasher horror movie shouldn't be judged on criteria used for serious drama.
For me, personally, the cardinal rule is to stay true to the established rules of your own paradigm, and it was on those grounds in particular that 'Rosa' irritated me. Clearly for many others, that's not the case- or the story was engaging them so strongly in other ways that they simply didn't notice it. Some people (like me) can't re-watch Fight Club without pointing out all the ways it doesn't make sense. Others don't care. Ultimately, I'm going to keep trying to avoid plot holes and contradictions in my own work, but then I've never been a 'message' guy.
To thine own self be true, I suppose.