So we spent a couple of weeks making our way through the first few films in the Josh Kirby, Time Warrior series for the #TrashyTuesdayMovie. After the first week I more-or-less swore I wouldn’t do a Trashy Tuesday Writing School post about this series until we hit the end, but the contrast between the first film (which was dull and awful) and the second film (which was an batshit crazy and awful) was marked enough that I kinda changed my mind.
The first Josh Kirby film, Planet of the Dino-Knights, probably ranks among the most god-awful films we’ve watched on a Tuesday night thus far. It’s not quite bad enough to slip into my bottom five, but it’d certainly earn its spot in the bottom ten.
The second film, The Human Pets, is better, but it’s greatest strength is being not-quite-as-poorly-made as its predecessor. In this respect, they’re actually an interesting duology in terms of the lessons they hold for writers. With that in mind, here are some things to make note of should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of seeing these two films (incidentally, you can probably find them on youtube).
1) EXPOSITION, MOTHERFUCKER, YOU DON’T NEED IT
You know that old saw where writers are all “show, don’t tell!” like it’s meaningful advice on writing? Watch these two films back-to-back and you’ll understand what we mean.
Planet of the Dino-Knights is all about the exposition. I mean, it really, really likes to explain things. People stop to explain some aspect of the plot to one-another every couple of minutes, and none of it is interesting. You literally sit there, watching a film that’s ostensibly about GUYS WITH SWORDS RIDING DINOSAURS ATTACKING OTHER DUDES WITH SWORDS ATTACKING DINOSAURS, and you’re all, like, “yawn, this sucks, wake me when there’s a good bit, okay?”
Then you sleep through the thirty seconds where something actually happens, and you hate yourself so much that you go and find the bourbon.
If you take out the scenes where one character stops to explain something to another character, you would drop an hour and a half long movie to about twenty minutes. Almost none of those twenty minutes would feature the nominal protagonist, Josh Kirby.
The Human Pets isn’t 100% exposition free, but it largely gets down to the business of letting people do things. Not even things that make sense, all the time, but characters are in action and you figure who they are by interpreting their actions within the setting and the context.
This is infinitely more interesting.
Watch these movies back-to-back and one of the most common pieces of writing advice ever given will be horribly, painfully illustrated.
2) THE WORLD IS BIGGER THAN YOU KNOW, BUT NO-ONE ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT IT
The Josh Kirby series follows a plot-line that’s going to be familiar to anyone who has read a fantasy novel in the last thirty years. An otherwise ordinary boy is swept up in world-shaking events, and discovers he has extraordinary powers. Replace “big fantasy battle” with “the destruction of all space and time” in the formula and you have the basis for the Josh Kirby series, right up there with him learning he’s got special powers at the tail end of the third film.
Here’s the thing: we don’t actually care about the world.
The end of the world feels like big, horrible thing to have at stake, but audiences don’t really care about the mass destruction of the human race. We care about the individuals the story has told us to empathise with – we want to see their pain all up-close-and-personal, rather than seeing them as a microscopic dot against a larger landscape.
Josh Kirby tries to bridge this gap – he wants to save the world ’cause his dad and the hot girl he’s crushing on are gone – but it never quite gets there. Josh doesn’t care enough, and we aren’t inclined to care for him.
3) ROMANCE IS MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE SHARING SCREEN TIME
In the grand tradition of #TrashyTuesdayMovies, the villains and supporting cast of the Josh Kirby series is infinitely more interesting than the primary character. And, in the grand tradition of #TrashyTuesdayMovies, it makes the mistake of thinking that romance sparks simply because a male character and a female character appear on screen together.
The Josh Kirby series isn’t the only film to do this, but it’s easily the most egregious example I’ve seem. There is literally five minutes of screen time between Josh having a knife held to his throat and Josh being willing to risk his life for the woman who just attacked him.
At least it takes a whole damn movie before there’s some indication that said woman, Azabeth Seige, may actually have feelings for Josh, although it has to be noted that there aren’t exactly *reasons* for this. The feelings are just assumed to be there, on the basis that one of them is the protagonist and the other is a female character standing right next to them.
Don’t do this.
Relationships should be a narrative arc, not an assumption.
4) KNOW YOUR PRODUCT
If you’re a writer, memorize this: Genre is a receding horizon of expectation.
What that means, more or less, is that we don’t engage with stories in isolation. We, as a culture, are immersed in narrative forms from day one, and since we’re basically organic machines built for patter recognition, we pick up on some of the common elements that occur time and again. Not always on a conscious level (hint: if you’re a writer, start getting conscious of this), but it’s there.
This works on a macro level – the moment I tell you something has narrative, that one word sets a whole bunch of expectations about character arcs and structure, even if you’re not entirely conscious level. You’ll expect a beginning, middle, and end. You’ll expect a satisfying climax.
It happens on a micro level too: science fiction sets different expectations to romance or crime, just as the various subgenres of those particular genres (cyberpunk versus hard SF, for example) do the a similar thing. From the moment you pick up a book and look at the cover, you brain is hard at work deciphering the little queues that tell you what kind of thing you’re about to engage with (so, like, cover art actually matters, despite what you’re parents told you about judging books).
The great flaw of the Josh Kirby series is that they’re marketed as films, but structured like a TV mini-series. The first film, Planet of the Dino-Knights, is particularly egregious in this respect, cutting off at the end of the second act and robbing people of a climax after they’ve invested an hour and a half in the narrative.
Don’t do that shit.
Know your damn product. If you want to be read as a TV series, let people know you’re a TV series. You’re only doing your story harm by setting up false expectations.