An Author's Notebook

In which the author shares musings on episodic stories and metanarrative.

An Author’s Notebook

Welcome, Dear Reader, to An Author’s Notebook, where I share various notes from my week in reading and writing. This week some thinking out loud on some favorites in the realm of episodic storytelling.

A Brief and Episodic History

I think it was Babylon 5 where I first encountered a show that combined episodic storytelling with a governing metanarrative. Even from season 1 you know that something is going on that’s bigger than the slate of adventures lined up to trouble the space station once a week, but you have to wade your way through episodes that don’t add anything to “the story” except revealing a little more character or world.

If you can make it to “Signs and Portents” (Episode 13), then those tantalizing promises of a grander canvas get a significant boost – but the viewer has to get there. And not every episode before it is pointing the way. Yes, they tide you over with life on a big station where humans and aliens from all over the galaxy come and go, but the “main” story is often deferred for the sake of filler and color. (Not so different from Deep Space Nine.)

Doctor Who – more the modern version than the classic – is cast in a similar mold, but here the metanarrative runs for just a season or perhaps even a whole regeneration. (If you're not a Whovian, regeneration is the mechanic the show uses to get new actors to take up the role of the Doctor.) Every season delivers stories to us through the vehicle of “anywhere in time and space.” The arc, if the show has one, is more about characters and their relationships through all the madcap adventures that the Doctor is flung into. And the show’s primary consolation is ultimately more about the individual episodes than the main story (some exceptions apply).

Classic Who is also episodic, but the ‘episodes’ are built of multiple segments instead of being one-offs, so it takes a while to finish a mini arc. Meta arcs only really play a role in The Key to Time, The E-Space Trilogy, The Blackguard Trilogy, and The Trial of the Timelord – all classics of the series in their own right. Still, even here the connective tissue is thin at best: there's a segment of the Key to Time in this episode but otherwise, it's a typical episode (with maybe a more formidable foe thrown in for good measure).

But whether it be classic or modern Who, the show’s narrative focus is so diffused that you only have the character of the Doctor to hold onto through all the flying about, explosions, and exclamations of triumphant genius.

Person of Interest presents an engine for episodic delivery in the form of a phone call. Our heroes receive "the numbers" via said call, which points them to a personal library code system, which in turn tells them which perpetrator or victim’s time is nigh in New York City. The source of the numbers is the key to the metanarrative, and the story is unified around that mystery. (I won’t spoil it here.) What I will say, is it’s a Batman show where Batman is split between a tech-genius/billionaire, Harold Finch, and a grim former spook, John Reese. We add in more characters to the good guy team as the show progresses, but the duo is the core.

There are plenty of throw away episodes in episodic TV like Person of Interest, though showrunners today will sprinkle in meta bits to discourage the viewer from skipping an episode. (FOMO must be at least part of the reason people tune in to watch procedural crime dramas…if they still do tune in and don’t just binge on streaming.)

This episodic-almost-metarrative approach isn’t constrained to TV. The Conan stories of Robert E. Howard and his inheritors are episodes anchored to the metanarrative of Conan’s life: Reaver, mercenary, slayer, thief, king. You can bounce around from “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” to The Hour of the Dragon, but it doesn’t really matter what order you read the tales in. Conan is Conan, just facing different troubles (like Kirk and the Enterprise crew – at least until the Star Trek movies began to impose a sense of meta-history on the story).

Personally, I enjoy all these stories – and I’m disappointed in each of them. I want Babylon 5 to have more of the focus that The Expanse has. It doesn’t need to be all main storyline, there can be sub-narratives, but I’m not a fan of throw away tales.

Here I will provide an example: I’m thinking of the main plot of Babylon 5, Season 3’s Episode 19 “Grey 17 is Missing” where an entire level of the space station is revealed to be missing. So, of course, the chief security officer goes to investigate and runs into some space horror between the decks. Is it consistent with the weirdness of Babylon 5? Sure, we’ve done this kind of thing before. But we’re rushing toward the climax of the space opera here, people! This is not the time for station spelunking so that we can behold the wonder of the ZARG!

I want Babylon 5 to live up to its core promise more consistently and shed those distracting indulgences that creep into the writer's head when you have to fill 20+ episodes of air time for a season.

I also want Doctor Who to have more unity and cohesion – for it to be a truly sweeping epic that takes itself more seriously while still holding on to its reckless warrior mirth.

But it won't ever be that.

Neither will Person of Interest ever be much more than some uneven stories stitched together to make five seasons of character development (four and a half, really). Much as Conan’s story can’t help but be the disconnected adventures of the Cimmerian vaguely advancing him along the path of becoming king.

Episodic Star Wars doesn't fully escape either. Much of where The Mandalorian struggles in its first two seasons, comes from its lack of unified vision, which leads to uneven storytelling. The good parts are fun, but it has nowhere near the focus that Andor has. (At the time of this writing, Andor has really delivered on its promise as a great Dark Times story – I hope it closes well.)

So what do I want?

I want the choice of genre to be reflected in and supported by the mechanics of the storytelling. In game design, they call that Ludonarrative Consonance, where the story of the game is supported by its mechanics. (If you want to hear about the opposite, Ludonarrative Dissoance, here’s where the term was first coined.) If you're going to tell an epic, then the mechanics of the story need to empower that mode. You disperse the power of epic by fragmenting your story with disconnected episodes.

Alright, let's pause and consider for a moment. I like those last couple thoughts on story benefiting from genre and mechanics being in consonance – so we'll put a pin in that for another time.

But I find myself wondering: Do I have the right pieces of evidence assembled to best support that argument?

Is Person of Interest an epic? Yes and no. It's a broad and expansive story that could shed some fat, and it's hamstrung by its procedural nature. (Can a procedural story ever be an epic?) It also need not be enervated by frivolous episodes. The story line that runs from the pilot to "The Devil's Share" in Season 3 is masterful. We then progress to the big promise of the series – and the delivery is uneven though moving.

What about Doctor Who? More a collection of fairy tales than an epic really: there's always a monster, it needs to be stopped, the Wizard is here to get the job done. I just think that core concept is being squandered. We could have a much grander story with the seeds provided. A point worthy of consideration...

Ah, Dear Reader, here we will close the notebook for now. I hope you enjoyed this more discursive missive even if we haven't tied off and clarified our avenues of investigation. And I also think now would be a good time to reflect again on what Aristotle had to say about Unity in storytelling.

Best regards,


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