Geek Punditry #22: Share Your Perfect Movie

A little over a year ago, in an effort to get people on Facebook to talk about something positive rather than simply despising each other as loudly as possible, I asked the following question: “What are some movies (sequels notwithstanding) that are virtually flawless in all respects, that there is no way you can imagine them possibly being improved upon, and that any discussion of remaking them would be the purest hubris?”

The goal behind this was simply to get some good-natured conversation going for a change, to get people talking about “perfect” movies that they love, but I was quickly amazed by the variety of answers I started to receive. It was also telling to me how widely spread the responses were. Plenty of classic movies got mentioned, as well as a lot of modern popular hits, but then there were the obscure movies like the Japanese drama An Autumn Afternoon or the pre-blockbuster Eddie Murphy action movie 48 Hrs. Now when I say a “perfect” movie, to me that means that there is no legitimate criticism or room for improvement, that everything about the movie is as good as it could possibly have been in the time and place in which it was made. This is, of course, inherently subjective, but that’s the point. I can give the definition to anyone, but it’s seeing what movies they think qualify that really became intriguing to me.

So I wound up doing what I usually do when I’m talking about movies and I get caught up in it: I went to Letterboxd and made a list. (Side note: I love Letterboxd. It’s one of my favorite places on the internet. It’s a social media platform where movie lovers can write reviews, share lists, and talk about movies. It’s a wonderful place for movie fans. It’s what Goodreads should be for books, if Goodreads wasn’t owned by Amazon now and every other click on the site didn’t attempt to divert you to spend money.) I listed every movie that someone suggested as being “perfect,” according to their own criteria, and I ranked them based on how many people suggested each one. I thought today it would be fun to walk through the list of suggestions I’ve collected since last year, talk about them a little, and then throw open the door for more. This list is a never-ending work in progress, so I’m always happy to hear what you think deserves a place here.

“It’s flawless.”
“But doesn’t his own mom hit on–“

So far, 339 separate movies have been suggested by at least one person. Of those, I’ve seen 237 of them, and although I definitely don’t agree with all of them, that’s okay. The point is to see what SOMEbody thinks is perfect, not EVERYbody. The top choices, however, are pretty tough to argue with. The #1 choice, “nominated” by 12 separate people (myself included) is Back to the Future. The last time I mentioned Marty McFly and the Doc in this column, it was when I talked about Pop Culture Comfort Food – the whole trilogy is something I can throw on to make myself feel better on a bad day, but there’s something about that first movie that’s practically sorcery. Writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis found a way to weave together sci-fi time travel gobbledygook with a story that’s funny and uplifting, with a musical score by Alan Silvestri that I’d put among the top five of all time. I don’t want to get too deep into what makes this movie perfect because, let’s be honest here, you probably already know. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who doesn’t love the original Back to the Future, and if I did, I don’t think I could trust them.

The only reason that anyone uses the phrase “as you wish” anymore.

The second movie on my ranked list is also one of my comfort films (although when I wrote about it before I was talking more about the book than the film): Rob Reiner’s adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Eleven people suggested this one – a romantic comedy that’s full of classic quotes and unforgettable characters. It’s a fairy tale that makes everyone believe in love without making it seem like something that can only exist in fairy tales. It’s the reason people who aren’t wrestling fans know who Andre the Giant was. And sure, there are some bits about it that crack a little under scrutiny: in the fight between Westley and Inigo, for example, it’s horribly obvious when Cary Elwes is replaced by a stunt double to do flips on a bar, and the edges of the hidden mat are clearly visible when he lands a few seconds later. But I wouldn’t change those if I could – even those things are part of the film’s charm. Even the things that aren’t perfect IN The Princess Bride are perfect FOR The Princess Bride. It’s pretty telling that among the very few things that people on the internet can agree about is that NOBODY wants to see a remake of this movie.

Moving down the list from this point, a modern psychologist or anthropologist could really start to paint a portrait of the kind of people I associate with on social media, because The Shawshank Redemption and The Big Lebowski got seven votes each. These are two films that are enormously popular among people my age, movies that came out during those high school and college years in which many of us formally adopt the pop culture influences that become permanent parts of our identities. Shawshank is one of my personal favorite films, a film that takes the setting of a brutal New England prison and weaves a story about undying hope that is, in its own way, as inspiring as The Princess Bride itself. It’s a little hobby of mine to tell people who don’t already know that it’s based on a book by Stephen King, especially if they don’t like horror and they think that’s all he can write. 

Add in The Matrix and you’ve got 74 percent of college dorm walls circa 1999.

The Big Lebowski was my generation’s Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that was elevated to a lofty position based on the Rule of Cool. People saw in Jeff Bridges’s character a sort of carefree slacker god. “The Dude” became a role model, and while the lifestyle he enjoys in the film isn’t really something that works in the real world, that doesn’t particularly matter when it comes to making us fall in love with a movie, does it?

There are two kinds of people: people who love The Iron Giant and people who…I don’t know…probably murder kittens in their sleep.

The Iron Giant got six mentions, and if there’s any movie that deserves more it’s this one. The story, about an alien robot who falls to Earth and learns what it means to be human, resonated with me instantly. It’s the best Superman movie without Superman in it that you’ve ever seen, and it’s easily the most animated performance Vin Diesel has ever given. 

Next up, we get clumps of movies with the same number of votes. Five people each voted for Alien (the original), Clue, The Godfather, and Groundhog’s Day, and I would not argue with any of them. Four votes each go to Casablanca, Heathers, Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and my wife Erin’s favorite movie, Jaws. Again, there’s nothing here that I would really disagree with, except to say that I think some of those deserve a higher rating (which you, dear reader, are invited to provide if you’re so inclined).

Two movies made perfect by way of subtraction.

I do want to point out here that The Godfather and Jaws both occupy places on a very small but important list: movies that are better than the book they’re based on. The standard argument is that the book is better, and I agree that it’s usually true, but these two pretty darn perfect movies both got that way by jettisoning parts of the respective books that would have hurt the films. In the case of The Godfather, a long and rather uncomfortable subplot about Johnny Fontaine and his sexual conquests is reduced to little more than a cameo for the character in the film. The subplot is unpleasant to read and really has nothing to do with the story of the Corleone family, which is what the story is really about. In the case of Jaws, there’s a subplot about Ellen Brody having an affair with Matt Hooper, which is obviously the sort of shenanigans that the wife of the police chief worried about a killer shark and the marine biologist who has been called in to help capture said shark are going to get down to in between measuring the bite radius on the remains of the victims. I don’t know, maybe it had something to do with the 70s, the idea of throwing in unnecessary storylines about people gettin’ down, but thank goodness the filmmakers had the good sense to leave those parts out of the respective films. Had they gone in intact, I don’t know that I could support either of those movies being on this list.

I’m not going to go through the entire list here – there are still over 300 movies that I haven’t mentioned yet. But I invite you to read the list yourself and let me know if you agree or disagree. The list is a work in progress. I’ve added several movies myself since I first drafted it (Everything Everywhere All at Once being the most recent film that I’ve seen to make the cut) and I’ve periodically asked for more suggestions. Now I’m asking you. Are you irritated that your favorite movie didn’t get mentioned? Hey, mention it yourself! You think a movie that’s down at position #187 deserves to be higher? Give it a nomination and it’ll move up. You’re angry because you don’t think #163 deserves to be on the list at all? Well, sorry to say it, but that’s not going to change. Even if you don’t like it – even if I don’t like it – somebody called it perfect, and that’s all it takes to get on the list.

You can make suggestions here on the blog, on the Letterboxd list itself, or on whatever social media platform you used to follow the link. And remember the ground rules: first, no “joke” suggestions. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate that well on the internet, and if I think you’re suggesting something ironically, I’m just going to throw it out. Second, no BULK suggestions. Don’t just say, for instance, “all the James Bond” movies, because there are 26 of them and if you say “all of them” I’m going to question your critical thinking skills. And finally, be specific. Some stories have been told more than once, some titles have been used multiple times. Don’t just say Hamlet, tell me WHICH Hamlet – preferably the year of release, but at least tell me who the actors are so I know which version you’re voting for.

If nothing else, it’s a chance to see what movies people love, what movies matter to people, and to make your voice heard at least a little. And for the chance to talk about what people enjoy, I think that’s worth the few moments of thought.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. TV shows don’t count for this experiment, unfortunately, or else his son would no doubt have forced a thousand episodes of Paw Patrol onto the list. 


Geek Punditry #21: A Complete Trip Down the Yellow Brick Road

No matter what your particular fandom is, there are many different strains of Geekery – the Viewer just watches the movies or shows, the Shipper is obsessed with who is (or should be) hooking up with who, the Collector wants the merch, the Debater just likes to argue – and all of them are perfectly valid. One of the more difficult ones to be, though, is the Completionist. The Completionist is someone who wants to read, watch, or play every incarnation of their favorite franchise, no matter what. (When you cross this with the Collector, you wind up with someone who can open a museum.) Being a Completionist can be time-consuming or all-encompassing if you allow it to be, which is why I try to restrain myself, because I definitely have Completionist tendencies. I can refrain from reading every Star Trek novel ever written, but I definitely want to watch every movie and TV series in the franchise, even the one I don’t like. (Yes, that’s singular.)

Completionism is more difficult with some properties than others, of course. Fans of modern franchises like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter have it relatively easy – the number of books, movies, and TV shows is comparatively small and all of them are easily available for anyone who wants them. A George R.R. Martin Completionist’s fear is that the series will never be finished, not that they won’t be able to find it. But it gets much more difficult if you’re a Completionist for an older property, especially one that has lapsed into the public domain. For example, I’m a big fan of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, and if I really wanted to, I could spend the rest of my life trying to complete my experience in that world and never have a chance of success. When Oz is mentioned, the average person usually thinks of The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film starring Judy Garland and absolutely zero suicidal Munchkins, no matter what Freddy Campbell told you in sixth grade. The movie is, of course, a legitimate classic, and everybody has seen it. Fewer people have read the novel it’s based on, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although most people are probably at least vaguely aware that it exists. What even fewer people understand, though, is just HOW MUCH Oz content exists in the wild.

Wait a second, I think Google Image Search may have screwed something up here…

Baum himself wrote 14 novels about Oz, plus assorted short stories, some stage plays, and even a couple of silent movies. After he passed away, his position of “Royal Historian of Oz” was passed on by the publisher to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote even more books than Baum before the title got passed along again. All in all, the “original” Oz series consisted of FORTY different books by seven different authors before it was retired in 1963. Not that the authors retired, though. Many of them wrote other Oz books later in life, although those are not usually counted among the “Famous Forty,” as they are known to Ozites. 

But this is only the beginning. In addition to the seven official “Royal Historians,” other people started to put out their own versions of Oz, even before the earliest books started to slip into the public domain. W.W. Denslow, the illustrator of the original Wizard of Oz, tried doing his own Oz stories without Baum after the two had a falling-out, although they didn’t enjoy the staying power of his collaborator. Some of Baum’s own children wrote Oz books that wound up getting squelched when they were sued by their father’s publisher for violating their copyright. But once the Baum books went into Public Domain, things exploded.

A quick explanation of Public Domain, just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know what that means: when someone makes a creative work, they (or their employer, if it’s a work-for-hire) automatically own the copyright to that work. Copyright can be sold, transferred, or licensed, but only the copyright owner has the legal right to profit off that specific work in any way. Eventually, some time after the creator’s death, copyright expires and these creative works lapse into what is called Public Domain, which means that nobody owns the rights any longer and anybody is free to create their own derivative work based upon it. It’s the reason why so many people do their own versions of Shakespeare’s plays and why there are ten billion different versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – you don’t have to pay anybody to use the story, but you still get to trade on the public opinion of the name to build your audience. Copyright laws have changed over the years, mostly due to the efforts of the lobbyists working for the major IP holders (Disney in particular) trying to get it extended over and over again, but eventually it does end. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens when Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, finally enters public domain next year.

Another masterpiece brought to you courtesy of Public Domain.

Having said that: a work can be in public domain, but the derivative works can still be copyrighted. The Baum Oz novels are in public domain, but the MGM movie is not, so you cannot use any elements specific to the film in your own work without paying up. The best example of this came with Return to Oz, the 1985 Disney film that you may remember as giving you nightmares when you were seven years old. The movie was based on the second and third Baum books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, and they were free to use those elements, but they also wanted one of the most iconic symbols of Oz: the Ruby Slippers. The problem is that in Baum’s books, Dorothy’s magic shoes were silver. MGM changed them to Ruby to better show off their Technicolor process, and they still owned the copyright on Ruby Slippers, so Disney had to pay them for the right to use Ruby Slippers in the film. Crazy, right?

This one shot cost Disney seven times your annual income.

Anyway, once the copyright finally ended on the earliest Oz books, the ones by Baum, it became legal for anybody to tell their own versions of or use elements from that story as they wished. From SyFy’s Tin Man miniseries to the classic musical The Wiz, the public domain nature of Oz has led to hundreds if not thousands of derivative works. And here’s where it gets hard to be a completionist: not only is there simply too much stuff out there to read or watch it all, it’s almost impossible to even create a comprehensive list.

A while back, I decided to try to compile a list of Oz books and short stories, but even with the help of websites like The Royal Timeline of Oz or their sister website, Wikipedia, it became apparent that the sheer volume of what I was attempting to do made it nearly impossible. I started putting together a Google Sheet with all of the different Oz books I could find, a list that as of this writing is breezing past 400 different works and still going. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of Oz comic books (a few of them are on my Sheet, but not nearly all) or countless movies and shorts that have been built around Baum’s universe. By the way, I invite anyone interested to take a look at my sheet and let me know what I’m missing – I may never finish the list but I’ll never stop adding to it either. It’s the Completionist in me.

You see, in addition to the “official” works, dozens of other publishers have taken it upon themselves to continue the stories, both in ways that are faithful to Baum’s original works and others in ways that Baum may never have considered or even approved of. That’s another aspect of Public Domain: the fact that anybody can make a derivative work can often draw upon people who are doing so not out of love for the original property, but in an attempt to subvert it. Earlier this year, for example, we saw the release of the film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, which takes A.A. Milne’s beloved icons of childhood joy and innocence and turns them into bloodthirsty horror movie slashers. Give me a break.

Oh, bother.

Look, I like horror movies. I like slasher movies. I like goofy slasher movies. But I don’t care for people who take a crap on precious childhood memories. Characters like Pooh and Tigger are beloved by children all over the world – do they really need to see Pooh gutting somebody with a chainsaw? Full disclaimer here: I have not seen Blood and Honey, nor do I intend to, because it’s the concept itself I dislike. (Quick note to mention that it’s the original Milne books that are in public domain, not the more well-known Disney version of Winnie the Pooh. Man, it always seems to come back to Disney, doesn’t it?)

That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for a dark derivative of an old story, of course. Let’s run down the Yellow Brick Road again to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a novel of Oz that tells the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the original Wizard of Oz, Wicked is a fine novel that has been somewhat overshadowed by its own musical adaptation, but no matter which version of the story of Elphaba you’re enjoying, it’s definitely a more mature version of Oz than Baum ever wrote. With Wicked, though, Gregory Maguire was using Baum’s backdrop to tell an intriguing story, something with interesting social commentary, something that had a point. I have no problem with that whatsoever. What bothers me is when someone twists an icon of childhood without a good reason to do so, when somebody creates something shocking just for the sake of being shocking. I don’t care for that. I don’t respect it. And everything I’ve seen of Blood and Honey makes me feel like that’s what the movie does. If I’m wrong, by all means, let me know.

Anyway, the point is that with all of the Oz out there, it seems impossible that I’ll ever get through it all. I’ve read all of the Oz books Baum himself wrote, but I haven’t made it through the rest of the Famous Forty yet. I’ve enjoyed Eric Shanower’s original graphic novels and I loved the adaptations of the Baum originals he did with Skottie Young for Marvel Comics, but Zenescope Comics’ Grimm Fairy Tales has a whole Oz spinoff line that I’ve barely touched upon. I’ve still got three out of four Wicked Years books to read, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the series by later authors like March Laumer or Baum’s own great-grandson Roger S. Baum. And this is to say nothing of the “official” productions that are still coming out! The International Wizard of Oz club produces an annual magazine, Oziana, which always includes new short stories (and sometimes even short novels) set in Baum’s world. And as they had the utter temerity to begin publishing Oziana back in 1971, before I was even born, it seems quite unlikely that I’ll ever be able to track down every piece of Oz media that exists.

Slow down! I’ve got twelve decades of IP to catch up on!

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, is it?

Completionism is a fool’s game, my friends, and it’s a game that most of us are doomed to lose. But even so, it can still be an awful lot of fun to play.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is most definitely not writing this column just to give people ideas for what to get him for Father’s Day, his Birthday, Christmas, or International Oz Completionist Day. 

Geek Punditry #20: Prequel Pitfalls

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new Hunger Games movie coming out. “But how can that be?” you ask. “Didn’t the original trilogy of four movies end the story in a tidy, satisfying manner?” Eh, kinda. But this one isn’t another sequel, it’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, based on the prequel novel by the creator of the series, Suzanne Collins. I was a big fan of the novels, and the movies were…okay. But I haven’t yet read the prequel novel and I’m honestly not feeling a huge need to do so. As I mentioned a few weeks ago during one of my almost-weekly Star Trek discussions, pulling off a satisfying prequel is tricky as hell, and not a lot of franchises have done a good job of it. So before you line up to see Songbirds and Snakes, let’s take a little time this week to discuss what it is that makes prequels difficult and a few franchises that have overcome that inherent degree of difficulty to give us a satisfying result. 

You know, by definition, ballads have words, so I’m expecting these birds and snakes to talk. Do it, you cowards.

Any time you return to a successful franchise, there is a compulsion to raise the stakes. There’s no reason to go back to familiar territory, after all, if you can’t enhance the next installment – greater spectacle, more blood, a more fervent tugging on the heartstrings. It’s the reason that horror movie sequels always have a higher body count and why the first Fast and Furious movie was about illegal street racing but in the most recent one they were literally driving cars into outer space. And while we usually think about this escalation issue in terms of sequelitis, we want the same thing out of a prequel.

Even sequels don’t always pull off the escalation in a satisfying way (in truth, the list of sequels that are better than the original film is relatively small when you consider how many sequels have been made), but it’s even more difficult to do so when rolling back in time because many of the things audiences usually want to discover about the characters and the world they live in have already been established by the original. Going back to Star Trek as my example (because this is my blog, dammit), when you sit down to watch an episode of Strange New Worlds, there is never any fear in your heart that Spock might die because you know he’s still alive during the original series. Not to say that death is the only challenge a character might face, but the same logic applies to most of the unanswered questions we usually cling to. No one cares about a “will they/won’t they” romance with characters who we’ve already seen having “willed” or “won’ted.” That invasion that’s happening is kind of dull if you know from the original movie that the aliens are, indeed, successful in conquering the world. And if a character that has no children in the original film gets pregnant in the prequel, get ready for bad things to happen. Bad prequels feel like watching somebody draw a connect-the-dots picture. We watch as the story goes from point 1 to point 2 to point 3, and no matter how many numbers you have in the image, you’re never surprised by what happens next.

From left to right: Safe, At-Risk, Hella Safe, Don’t Get Too Attached, Gonna Survive the Series But Wind Up in a Space Wheelchair, Originally Played by Majel Barret Part 1, Originally Played By Majel Barret Part 2, Could Buy it at Any Time, and Bet You Forgot This Guy Was in TOS.

So how can you make a prequel work? Well, there are a few ways. One is to rely less on a story that just marches towards the original and instead try to tell a story that matches the original’s flavor in a satisfying way. You’re drawing on the same page, but you aren’t just playing connect-the-dots. This is what makes Strange New Worlds work. Yeah, I’m never worried that Spock is in mortal danger, but the truth is that we were never really worried when we watched the original series either, were we? This was a pre-Game of Thrones era, a time where series regulars didn’t get killed off randomly. It’s literally the reason that the redshirt trope came to exist: they needed to kill off SOMEBODY who wasn’t in the credits, so cannon fodder lined up in the casting office. Strange New Worlds takes the sort of episodic approach that the original series did, and while the stories are perhaps a bit more sophisticated than those that Shatner and Nimoy performed in, the tone is really spot-on perfect. That’s what makes the show so satisfying, even without the spectre of the Grim Reaper hovering over half of the cast.

Another way to make a prequel work is to use the setting of the original property, but an entirely (or almost-entirely) new cast of characters whose fates have not been determined. Star Trek has tried this approach as well. Enterprise was a series about the founding of the Federation, 200-ish years before Kirk. Even though you always felt the world we knew from the original series as the North Star that the Enterprise NX-01 was sailing towards, there was room for danger for these individual characters. They also tried this with Discovery, but this time set it only a decade pre-TOS and mingled in characters so hopelessly intertwined with Spock that it became a distraction to simply try figuring out how any of it meshed with the stories we already loved. The second season finale had a half-assed attempt at explaining why the events of Discovery had never come up in-universe before (especially Spock never mentioning an adopted sister that he was apparently quite devoted to, even when his rogue half-brother previously turned up in Star Trek V), but it just never properly landed.

Of course, no discussion of prequels would be complete without the franchise that popularized the term, and in fact includes one of the greatest prequels ever made. That franchise is Star Wars. The prequel? Rogue One.

No, not the other three. You see, another way to make a prequel work is to subvert the audience’s expectations – make them think they know what you’re going to do, but give it an unexpected twist. Since the audience knows how the story will end, you have to pull off some pretty big surprises to get there. This is both how the prequel trilogy failed and Rogue One succeeds. The trilogy is about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the character everyone who saw the original films knows will eventually become Darth Vader. We know from the original series that Anakin was a Jedi who fell to the Dark Side of the Force and became an apprentice to the insidious Emperor Palpatine. It sounds like a story that’s ripe for tragedy. But in telling that story, George Lucas stuck painfully to the blueprints, with nothing particularly shocking or surprising about Anakin’s fall except for the sheer number of details that failed to mesh with the original series. (“Hey Leia, remember your mom?” “The one who died giving birth to me? Yeah, she was beautiful, but sad.”)

Rogue One, on the other hand, is not only the best Star Wars film of the Disney era, it’s one of the best examples ever of how to toy with an audience’s expectations. In the original Star Wars Leia delivers data to the Rebellion that will help them to defeat the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, with the only explanation of how it was obtained being the single sentence, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” (EDIT: I have been reminded that the Bothans line was actually about the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi. I deeply regret this error, but it does open a window to make a Rogue Two movie about the Bothans.) Rogue One tells the full story of how this vital information was secured, and director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting team pulled off a damn magic trick in doing so. We, the audience, already know that the mission will ultimately be successful – it’s literally how the original trilogy begins. So how can you build suspense for that? Well, first you introduce a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters, characters that fit in the Star Wars universe but don’t fall cleanly into the cookie cutter shapes of the older films, and make the audience feel for them. Then – and I’m about to spoil a movie that came out seven years ago, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it – then after we grow to love and care about the characters that are on a mission we know beyond a shadow of a doubt will be successful…

This poster and caption provided as a public service buffer in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.


They succeed in transmitting the information, but every character we’ve come to love dies in the attempt. This kind of ending, where every major character dies and which TV Tropes calls a “Bolivian Army Ending” after the finale of Bonnie and Clyde, is dangerous for a writer. There’s a real risk of being accused of trying for shock value, upsetting the audience in a visceral way that may not be truly satisfying. Rogue One nails it, though. The characters die heroically, succeeding in their mission at the cost of their own lives, and even as the audience is left weeping for them we’re also left with the knowledge that their sacrifice was not in vain. The movie ends just seconds before the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, and even though they were made nearly 40 years apart, watching them together gives the original an added context and an added weight that actually makes it better.

That’s what a great prequel does, by the way. It recontextualizes the original property in such a fashion that you look at it differently. Let’s talk about Better Call Saul, the spin-off of AMC’s drama Breaking Bad. It’s not often that somebody creates what is perhaps the greatest dramatic TV series of all time, but somehow, Vince Gilligan managed to do it twice. The fact that the second time was a prequel is the TV equivalent of walking a tightrope blindfolded and then doing it again backwards.

Breaking Bad was a series about a high school chemistry teacher who winds up falling into the world of drugs and organized crime. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White starts off as a deeply sympathetic and wonderfully human character – beaten down by a life that didn’t go the way he expected, a marriage that has grown stale, struggling to connect with his son…and if that wasn’t enough, in the first episode he learns he has cancer. It begins in desperation, cooking methamphetamines in order to make money to take care of his wife and children after his death. Over the course of five seasons, though, we watch this man transform from a quiet, relatable antihero into a cold-blooded crime lord, somebody who is terrifying to watch, but the writing and performances are so compelling that you just can’t look away.

Not since Dan Fielding have you loved a sleazy lawyer so much.

One of the characters who gets pulled into Walter White’s web is Saul Goodman, a shyster lawyer whose services are provided to the criminal element of Albuquerque when they’re in a tight jam. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Saul was an instant hit, providing comic relief at necessary moments while still having the emotional gravity that the show demanded. When Breaking Bad finished its run, Gilligan and Peter Gould spun off the Saul character into his own series that began some years earlier. On paper it doesn’t sound like a great idea – who cares how a shyster lawyer became a shyster? It turns out, everybody.

Better Call Saul premiered with Bob Odenkirk playing…well, not Saul Goodman, but Jimmy McGill, an attorney trying to get out of the shadow of his brother and struggling to make ends meet. Like Walter White, he makes an early decision out of desperation that pulls him into the criminal underworld of New Mexico, and from there, the story is about how Jimmy McGill transforms into Saul Goodman.

Aside from – again – the excellent writing and phenomenal performances of the cast, the thing that makes Better Call Saul so compelling is the way it acts as a PARALLEL to Breaking Bad. We know where Saul Goodman ends up, but like Walter White, we watch in impotent terror as he falls deeper and deeper into the chaos that surrounds him. Like Walter, sometimes he makes terrible choices. Like Walter, sometimes he is compelled to make these decisions by forces beyond his control. There’s a lovely contrast here, too. Walter begins doing bad things with the intent of helping his loved ones, but is eventually intoxicated by the criminal lifestyle. Jimmy/Saul, on the other hand, is a con artist who’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow but just keeps slipping until he surrenders entirely. 

Both shows are about someone who begins as a basically decent man becoming something much darker and losing himself in the process – Walter becomes the criminal kingpin “Heisenberg,” while Jimmy McGill becomes smooth-talkin’ Saul Goodman. When watching Breaking Bad the characters of White and Goodman couldn’t be further apart from one another. Watching Better Call Saul makes you realize maybe they aren’t that different after all.

Beyond just Odenkirk’s character, though, Better Call Saul features frequent appearances by other characters from the earlier series, and knowing that these characters are safe from death doesn’t hurt the show at all. Nowhere is this more evident than with Jonathan Banks’s character Mike Ehrmantraut, who was a major supporting player on Breaking Bad, but is so vital to the prequel that they almost could have titled it Better Call Mike. Mike is a rough character, a former cop turned criminal who is willing to and capable of doing very bad things in pursuit of his goals, and when we first see him in Better Call Saul he doesn’t seem very different than he does in the other show. Then we see his relationship with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, a story that we knew from the previous series, but not in its entirety, and much like Saul Goodman and Walter White, he becomes more sympathetic. Mike, Saul, and Walter all do terrible things for the purpose of helping people they care about, and as an audience member, they force us to question how far we would go for the people we love. In the case of Saul and Mike, the knowledge that they’re eventually going to fail gives the show the air of a Shakespearean tragedy. Their fall is as guaranteed as that of Anakin Skywalker, but is far more compelling.

Going backwards in the timeline can be dangerous, and the truth is there are far more examples of franchises that have made the attempt and fallen flat. But as these few examples show, it is possible to make a prequel work.  

What I’m getting at is that my Decepticon Babies pitch is NOT any stupider than anything you let Michael Bay put on screen, Paramount, so dammit, return my calls. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. There are probably some people who thought he was joking about the “cars in outer space” crack. Heh. Just watch F9, guys. 

Geek Punditry #19: Mad Scientist Storytelling

When you hear the word “experiment,” you usually think of something scientific: a guy in a lab coat mixing multicolor liquids from test tubes over a Bunsen burner, electrifying that corpse he’s got strapped to the table, or kidnapping strangers and throwing them into a deathtrap together to see how they react. Or maybe not, I don’t know what your high school science classes were like. But experiments don’t have to be  scientific. In the arts, experiments can be a way to drive in new directions, inspiring new waves of creativity, and transforming storytelling. Movies were once an experiment: a melding of theater and photography to create something that had not existed before in any meaningful way. Repeating the experiment but replacing photography with hand-drawn art invented animation. Virtually every kind of story and every way a story can be told was an experiment at first, and that’s what makes it worthwhile to try. And while it’s possible to take chances within your art – in the message, in the characters, in the story itself – what I’m interested in today are those creations that take chances with the form of art, something that is created in an unusual way or presented to the audience in a fashion that they aren’t used to, because that kind of Mad Science Storytelling is what I find really inspiring.

Pictured: How Nicholas Sparks imagines himself.

The thing that brought this topic to my mind this week was Dracula Daily. Once a Tumblr blog and now a free Substack, Dracula Daily is presenting an old, familiar story in a fresh new form. The original Dracula by Bram Stoker was an epistolary novel, a story told through documents composed by the characters in the story. This can take lots of different forms – diary or journal entries, personal letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, and so forth. In a way, it’s kind of the grandparent of modern found footage movies. It was a highly popular format in Stoker’s time, and although not as dominant anymore, it still exists today.

What the team behind Dracula Daily is doing is taking the original novel and breaking it down by the dates on the “documents,” then sending those chunks out via email on the corresponding date. The earliest part of the novel chronologically, for example, is a journal entry by Jonathan Harker dated May 3, and Dracula Daily began up on that date, emailing Harker’s journal to everyone signed up for the list. This went on for a few days until May 9, when Mina Murray sent a letter to her friend Lucy Westenra, which was that day’s installment, and so forth. It’s a fun way to experience a familiar story, and if that sounds interesting to you, there’s plenty of time to catch up – only eight short installments have been sent out as of this writing, and the project will continue until the story’s end in November.

“Dear Diary: The Count is soooooo dreamy. He looks just like the guy from Leaving Las Vegas.”

Dracula Daily brought experimental stories back to my mind, but the notion has hovered there for a while because of a few other experimental stories I watched earlier this year. The thing about experiments is that sometimes experiments can…well…fail. And as the point of this blog is to celebrate what I love, I didn’t want to talk about just negative examples without having positives as well. I’ll get back to a few cool positives in a bit, but first let me tell you about the two things that, in my opinion, fell a little flat, but at the very least, were interesting.

First was a movie from last year called The Seven Faces of Jane, starring Gillian Jacobs. This is a film attempt at creating an “exquisite corpse:” Seven filmmakers were given an opportunity to make a chapter of the story of Jane, played by Jacobs, over the course of a long weekend after she dropped off her child at camp. The experiment interested me, as did the fact that one of the chapters was directed by Jacobs’s Community co-star Ken Jeong and also featured another Community alumnus, Joel McHale. Community being one of the greatest TV shows of the century, I’ll peek at literally anything people involved in that show are up to. However, Jane uses a TRUE exquisite corpse format, meaning that the filmmakers had no idea what the stories being told either before or after their segments would be. As a result, we don’t really get a movie as much as seven short films starring Gillian Jacobs and a blue car. There’s no consistency, nothing to adhere the segments together. The segments come from different genres, have clashing tones, and the primary character seems to be a completely different person from one minute to the next. Anthology movies can work, but there’s usually some sort of unifying element or theme that the film rallies around. In this movie that’s supposed to be Jane, but the segments are so different from one another that it’s impossible to accept it as a unified weekend from the life of a real person. For God’s sake, there are three separate segments about her briefly reconnecting with the long-lost love of her life, and it’s a different long-lost love every time. That’s a hell of a weekend. 

The other experiment that falls a little flat I’m going to be a bit kinder to, as I haven’t watched the whole thing…but if I thought the experiment was working, I would have watched it by now. I’m talking about the Netflix miniseries Kaleidoscope. The series tells the story of a heist, and heist movies are fun. The high concept, though, the thing that makes it experimental, is that the episodes can theoretically be watched in any order. Each episode (with a color-coded name, as befits the idea of a kaleidoscope) shows a segment in time relating to the heist, from the “Violet” episode set 24 years before through the “Pink” episode, six months after. When you hit the play button, Netflix randomizes the order of the episodes, with the only constant being the “White” episode – the story of the heist itself – coming last. 

It’s a fascinating concept, and nonlinear storytelling is certainly an interesting thing to experiment with, as the thousands of film students who have worshiped Quentin Tarantino for 30 years will vehemently attest. But the problem is that by randomizing the episodes, you’re also pretty much requiring every single episode be a good jumping-on point for the story, and that’s what didn’t work for me. I was randomly assigned the “Orange” episode (three weeks before the heist) as my introduction, and I just felt lost. I didn’t know who the characters were and, much worse, I didn’t care. Having a confused audience isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as they’re  compelled  to follow along until the confusion is alleviated. I wasn’t compelled. 

To date I’ve only watched the one episode of Kaleidoscope, and it’s possible that further watching would change how I feel, but with so many other TV shows competing for my time, I need a really compelling reason to give a second chance to one that left me so flat. In the interest of fairness, though, there are a lot of people who disagree with me. I can say that the Orange episode isn’t a good place to start, which in and of itself seems to indicate that the randomizing option isn’t entirely successful, but a quick Google search will show you that virtually everyone who has watched the entire series has a different opinion as to which is the best order to watch the episodes in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out if this proves that the experiment was a failure or a success that I’m just not seeing.

As experiments go, these two kinda Britta’d it.

So after those two duds, I was really excited about experimentation, but I needed to find better examples. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch came to mind, as it’s an “interactive movie” which requires that the viewer make decisions for the character at various points in the story, leading to several possible endings. It’s a fun movie and well-made, but ultimately it’s a filmed version of one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books that 80s kids like me grew up loving. Yes, it’s an experiment, but it’s kind of an old one, like growing a bean in a paper cup in elementary school science class. It’s fun because it’s new to you, because it’s your bean, but it’s not something that you can really point to as innovative. 

I asked friends on social media to suggest other experimental works, and the one that kept coming up was Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which is an examination of a documentary that doesn’t exist unless maybe it does about a house that…well, it’s complicated. But the book is pieced together in a very unorthodox way, in a semi-epistolary format that also plays with things like the color of the printing and the orientation of the page. Because of these elements, it’s the sort of book that you can’t read on your phone or a tablet, you have to have an actual physical copy on hand, and it’s mainly for that reason that I haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. In fact, I haven’t even got far enough into it to make an educated statement about its effectiveness either way. I’ve got a five-year-old son, people, what do you want from me? I promise I’ll try to read it eventually and, when I do, I’ll tell you what I thought. 

Then another movie came across my radar, a little indie film called Jethica. Directed by Pete Ohs, this quick movie tells about a pair of old high school friends who reconnect after several years. One of them tells the other about a struggle she had with a stalker, and how that trauma is following her, quite literally. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to spoil the movie (available on the Fandor app or to check out from Hoopla), but also because as good as the movie is, it’s the way it was made that really fascinates me. I learned about the film when Ohs was a guest on The Movie Crypt podcast, and the description of how the film was made blew my mind. Ohs brought his cast together and rented out a trailer for two weeks,  went there with a rough outline of the first half of the story, and then the five of them got together once a day to work out what the next scenes to be filmed would be, how to tell the story, and write a script as a team. Halfway through the shoot they took a day off from filming to figure out the rest of the story, then repeated the process to get to the end. 

As a writer and as someone who has directed theater productions (although never a film, I concede), this is one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever heard of. First of all, the fact that he began making the movie without even knowing the ending blows my mind. I’ve often said that when it comes to writing I’m more of a gardener than an architect – I plant seeds and cultivate them rather than planning out everything in advance – but I still have to have an idea of where it’s going to go before I start. I’m willing to take detours and change my mind along the way, but I still need some endpoint to march towards.

Second, the degree of collaboration is astonishing. I love collaborating with other creative people. I feel like I’m at my best when there are other artistic types around me, that the creative energy allows us to feed off each other. But the degree of trust that Ohs had in his cast is truly next level. The film’s script is credited to Ohs and the four members of the cast, all as co-writers, and that’s darn near magic.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Ohs then explained that this is how he always makes his movies.

Mind blown.

No, the name of the movie is Jethica. You thought that was a typo, didn’t you?

The guts to try something different is really the essence of experimental storytelling. If you’re not taking a risk, after all, where’s the experiment? And that brings me to the last example I want to bring up today, Kyle Higgins’s excellent superhero comic book from Image, Radiant Black. The story of a disillusioned young man who comes into possession of a mysterious and powerful suit of armor has been a big hit for Image and has even launched a new shared universe, both with spinoffs of Radiant Black and through crossovers with other books like Ryan Parrott’s Rogue Sun (which also did a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” timey-wimey issue a while back). But all of that stuff is standard in superhero comics. What makes Radiant Black an interesting experiment is the degree of connectivity Higgins has with his audience, finding ways to surprise the reader and make them involved that mainstream comics don’t often do.

The first time I noticed Higgins taking a chance with the book came in issue #15, in which Radiant Black discovers a movie crew making a fan film about him. A cute concept, one that I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen in comics before, but the surprise came on the last page where there was a QR code. Scanning the code brought you to a YouTube video, an animated short of the film that was made in the comic you just finished reading (and featuring the voice of Batman Beyond star Will Friedle). It was a clever way to bring the readers into the world of the comic, make it a little more “real,” and include them in the process.

But in the most recent issue, #24, he did something much more surprising, which is kind of spoilery, so if you’re reading Radiant Black and you haven’t caught up yet, go catch up before you read the rest of this.

This comic cover doubles as a spoiler buffer. See? EXPERIMENTAL.

Alright, if you’re still reading I assume either you’re caught up or you’re not worried about the spoiler. It’s on you. Radiant Black pulled a bait-and-switch a few issues in, where the main character, Nathan, was put into a coma and the armor was passed to his best friend, Marshall. Marshall was Radiant Black for a while until Nathan awoke from his coma and they discovered the ability to pass the armor back and forth between the two of them. This has been the status quo in the book for some time, leading up to the end of issue #24 where a proclamation is made by one of those cosmic-type beings that occasionally make proclamations in comic books: the armor can no longer be shared! Nathan and Marshall must choose which of them will be the sole Radiant Black from now on! 

And in the middle of that last page…ANOTHER QR CODE. This one takes you to a webpage where you vote on which of the two friends will be the permanent Radiant Black. 

Again, it’s about the writer having guts. No doubt he has plans for both characters, an idea of where the series is going to go no matter which way the vote goes, but think of the implications of that. This means Higgins has taken the time to map out and develop two different storylines, having the faith that both of them are worthy of telling and knowing that one of them will have to be abandoned. It’s hard enough to come up with one story that you believe in enough to tell. Doing two with the intention of junking one? Mr. Higgins, I salute you.

Now this isn’t the first time that comic book fans have voted on the fate of a character. There was the infamous Batman: A Death in the Family storyline from 1988, in which the second Robin, Jason Todd, was caught in an explosion after being beaten nearly to death by the Joker. Fans were asked to call a 900 number (ask your parents, kids) to vote on whether he would survive or not. Fans chose “not.” (This book, by the way, also inspired a Choose Your Own Adventure version, the Death in the Family animated movie, which came out a few years ago. You see why I couldn’t call Bandersnatch a proper experiment on its own merits?) 

More recently, Marvel has used the internet to poll fans for the last few years to occasionally realign the lineup of their X-Men characters, having the readers vote on the final member of the team. And of course in the ancient times (by which I mean the 1960s), DC Comics allowed fans to mail in their votes for the leaders of the Legion of Super-Heroes. None of these are as gutsy as what Higgins has done, though. In the case of the Legion, the question of who was technically leading the team at the time rarely had relevance to the stories being told – it was simple to swap out one for another as the story demanded. The same goes for X-Men – with so many characters in the book, having wiggle room for the last one isn’t problematic. Whether Robin lived or died, of course, was a much bigger deal, but Batman was also a much bigger book and then came with a smaller risk. You know Batman and the X-Men aren’t going to be canceled. The writer might get fired, sure. The book might be overhauled or renamed or it may start over with a new first issue because it’s Wednesday and they haven’t had one in a while, but one way or another that book is still going to be published next month.

Fun fact: In comic books people who are legally dead CAN come back and vote. In comic books and Chicago.

Radiant Black, like most Image titles, is creator-owned, and if it crashes, that’s kind of the end of it. But Higgins isn’t just a good enough writer to launch a new popular superhero title in a crowded landscape with a dwindling audience. He’s a confident enough writer to do it in a unique, creative, and risky way that still entertains his readers. It’s that confidence, I think, that impresses me the most. “Confidence” seems to be his middle name. It’s mine too, but in my case it’s preceded by “Complete Lack Of.” 

People have been telling stories for so long and have found so many different ways to do it that it seems almost impossible that there are any methods still waiting to be found. Even when an experiment doesn’t quite work, like Jane or Kaleidoscope, the people who tried it get my respect for the attempt. But when something new does work, that’s when a creator is going to make me a part of the audience for the long haul. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is accepting suggestions for other experimental stories all the time. Let’s have ‘em! What should he be reading or watching? He swears, he WILL get around to House of Leaves one of these days.

Geek Punditry #18: The Animation Hole

J. Michael Straczynsi is an accomplished storyteller, a phenomenal writer, and a little bit of a troll when it comes to teasing his fans with the promise of upcoming content. Among his other achievements, Straczynski is the creator of Babylon 5, which a lot of people consider one of the finest science fiction shows ever made, and which is in many ways a precursor to the current model of long-form storytelling that we enjoy on television. But while B5 is acclaimed, it’s obviously not as well known as the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Aside from the series itself, the universe has only enjoyed a few TV or direct-to-DVD movies, a spinoff series that lasted a single season, and a relative handful of novels, comic books, and short stories which are all long out of print and not even available digitally. Last week I told you guys how fans always want “more.” By that metric, Babylon 5 fans have been starving for a long time.

This week's news that Babylon 5 is going to return with a new movie should be met with joy -- but some fans are put off because the film will be animated. Why, in 2023, are we still looking down on animation?
But lunchtime is coming…

This week, though, we were finally promised a meal when JMS announced an upcoming Babylon 5 animated movie. Although we don’t yet know the plot, the title, or the release date, Straczynski told us the following: the film includes the voices of most of the surviving members of the original cast, the movie is already finished and will be released “very soon,” and it is – in his opinion – the best thing they’ve done with Babylon 5 since the original series ended. And as with most news announced to a group of starving genre fans, the reaction had two phases:

1: YES! New Babylon 5 content! FINALLY! The prophecy has been fulfilled!

Followed shortly thereafter by…

2: Pfft. 

Any time a popular franchise makes an announcement, there is a “Pfft” contingent, and while that contingent is usually small, it is extraordinarily vocal. One “Pfft” is capable of raising his voice on the internet above approximately 5,000 fans who are genuinely happy and excited about the project, and he does so in such a manner to indicate that the news is nothing to get excited about, and anyone who is excited is beneath him. These people have existed since the dawn of  civilization, the first recorded practitioner expressing their displeasure with a cave painting of a pack of wildebeest made by Hector “Ugg” Gutierrez, but which was clearly inferior to the one made by his arch-rival, Andy Warhol.

But back to the Babylon 5 announcement, specifically. The “Pfft” people usually latch on to a few key elements to fuel their derision, such as the cast or writing. In this case, though, since it’s almost all the original people involved in the new project, they have focused their spite on the medium: animation.

“Pfft. It’s a cartoon?”

“Pfft. I’ll wait for the real show to come back.”

“Pfft. Look at what happened to Star Wars.”

(That last one is the most perplexing to me, actually, since many of the Star Wars animated projects have been widely acclaimed, but it does demonstrate the phenomenon of cross-fandom “Pffting,” an activity that has always existed but which has become much more prevalent in this age of the internet.)

Look, I’m not here to tell anybody what to like. I’m not telling anyone they have to enjoy something, and I’m not telling anyone their opinions are invalid. I am, however, going to say that if your argument against a project is based solely on the fact that it’s animated, an opinion formed before even a single frame of the project has been seen by the public, then you’re kind of a dink.

“Come on, you don’t think anyone actually liked this, do you?”

The idea that animation is strictly a medium for children is a stupid one, and one that’s never made much sense to me. It certainly wasn’t the intention when it was invented. Early cartoons were made for a mass audience, with references to popular culture that would often go over the heads of children and plenty of double entendre that definitely wasn’t intended for the little’uns. It’s hard to watch classic Looney Tunes shorts with a discerning eye and think that bits like Bugs Bunny’s Clark Gable imitation were intended for kids even in the 1940s, or that the leggy girls the male toons would often chase after weren’t there for a little bit of grown-up fanservice. The people who made those cartoons were really trying to entertain themselves, and the fact that their work also entertained everybody else just showed how talented they were.

After my standard “I am not a historian” disclaimer, I’m going to say that I think the (largely American) perception of animation being strictly a medium for children probably is due to television. Once TV became more prolific and turned into a fixture in most American homes, content for every member of the family became a requirement, and cartoons became the preferred delivery system for the kids. Saturday morning cartoons blossomed, and they were glorious. They eventually migrated to weekday afternoons so kids had something to watch after school. And then, even older works (like the aforementioned Looney Tunes) were repackaged and shown during these children’s blocks, cementing them as kid stuff in the tightly-closed mind of the public. It’s a stigma that was set firmly, and while I think the last few decades have started to chip away at that mindset, things like the reaction to the Babylon 5 announcement prove that it’s still real for a lot of people. 

The thing is, none of the arguments for animation being only for kids hold up to even minimal scrutiny. Let’s break them down, shall we?

“Animation is childish.”

Sure, it can be. It can be a realm of crude humor and slapstick comedy and lowbrow jokes and goofy gags, just like the Three Stooges – who (although they did have a cartoon in their later years) were decidedly human. The things that people call “childish” are elements of the way the story is written or presented, not the medium. Animation can be mature and serious, and I’m not just talking about raunchy humor like South Park. I’m talking about things like the razor-sharp satire of early seasons of The Simpsons. I mean experimental films like Batman: Death in the Family. How about Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a story about two Japanese children surviving an American firebombing during World War II? It’s a transcendent film, but most definitely not something that any reasonable parent would show a small child.  

To call something “childish” derisively seems to mean that the content is not worthy for consumption by adults. And to be certain, there are kids’ shows that fall under that category. But even shows that are aimed at kids don’t necessarily lock out parents altogether. Bluey is the most current example of this – this Australian show ostensibly for preschoolers is a favorite among kids, but has been embraced by parents all over the world for portraying a loving mother and father (sure, they’re dogs, but so what?) who do their best with their children, fall short sometimes, but keep on going. The characters have become inspirational, role models even. Animated dads have far too often been cast in the mold of Peter Griffin. The truth is, every dad should aim to be a Bandit Heeler. 

Bluey is an instructional video on parenting disguised as a show for preschoolers.

And there are far more examples. The original Animaniacs series came out when I was in middle school, and it was a show my father actually enjoyed as well. It was part of the Fox Kids lineup, but like the Looney Tunes shorts that were their true parents, it had layers of satire and entendre that kids never would have understood. I was in college before I realized the episode “King Yakko” (which you may just know as “the Anvilania episode”) was a full-plot reference to the 1933 Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup. Yeah, that was a joke for kids in the 90s. 

How you make something does not determine the proper audience. What you make does. 

If you’re anywhere close to my age you know EXACTLY which joke this is.

“It’s just a cartoon, I can’t feel anything like I do for human actors.”

That’s a failure of the viewer, not the film. Animation can be deep, powerful, meaningful, and personal, and it all depends on the story you’re telling. If somebody came up to me and said that the saddest 60 seconds of television ever made came at the end of the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark,” I would be utterly incapable of arguing against it. After a full episode about Fry, trapped 1000 years in the future, coming to terms with losing the dog he left behind but finding comfort in the fact that he had a full life without him, the viewer learns that Seymour, the dog in question, literally spent the rest of his life waiting for his master to return before quietly passing away in front of the pizza parlor where Fry worked. Even somebody who hates dogs has to feel something for that.

97 percent of you got a lump in your throat when you saw this picture. The other three percent are assholes.

“But Futurama is adult animation,” you say. “Not all animation is like that.” I’m going to ignore the fact that you just utterly shattered your own argument that animation is all for kids and move on to examples that are for children, but which are still deeply moving for adults. How about the Pixar film Up? As a teacher, there are occasionally days where we show films because of reasons, such as having a room full of standardized testers who have finished early and I need to kill time before we return to our normal classes. On days like that I have a strict rule to never show the movie Up, because I may have to teach some of these 9th graders when they become seniors and I don’t need them remembering that time I sobbed like an infant in front of them. The beginning of Up tells the story of a boy and girl who grow up, fall in love, marry, discover they cannot have children, and grow old together before the woman, Ellie, leaves her husband Carl as a widower, and utterly alone. It’s a powerful story and it’s told, after their initial meeting as children is over, completely without words. It’s entirely visual, requiring the viewer to infer what has happened to them at each stage, and causing their souls to crumble as the reality sets in. I admit, I’m a softie. I cry at movies. At TV shows. Whenever I heard the John Williams anthem from Superman. But this was the only time in my life a movie made me cry in the first ten minutes.

I’m gonna make you people cry before the end of this column.

Emotion is an intended byproduct of art, all art. Whether it’s a film, a poem, a painting, or a concerto, art is created for the express purpose of evoking an emotional response from the audience. And great animation can nail it just as much as live action.

“Animation is just a cheap way to tell the story.”

First off, buy a calculator. The price tag on rendering animation can be pretty staggering. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here – maybe you mean that animation looks cheap. Sure. Sometimes. It’s hard to imagine that anyone involved in the 2012 magnum opus Foodfight! is particularly proud of what they have loosed onto an unsuspecting world. But that’s bad animation. Bad live action sucks too. So does bad writing, bad acting, bad special effects. If your argument is that “animation is bad,” you’re choosing to ignore the mountains of good animation that exist or the mountains of bad everything else you had to wade through to get there.

If Futurama and Up didn’t get a tear out of you, the existence of this abomination should do the trick.

Let’s go back to Babylon 5 for a second. Although very few details have been released, and everything I am about to say is speculation, the fact that Warner Bros. owns the property makes it reasonable to assume that the animated film is the work of the Warner Bros. Animation studio, the company whose history goes back to those magnificent Looney Tunes I keep bringing up. For a more recent example, and one that is thematically much closer to what the B5 movie will likely be, this is also the studio that has made the collection of DC Comics animated films that have come out over the last several years, movies like All-Star Superman, Batman: Under the Red Hood, Superman Vs. the Elite and Justice League Vs. the Fatal Five. The current unit is also responsible for many films featuring the likes of Scooby Doo and other Hanna-Barbera properties, Tom and Jerry, and…you guessed it! The Looney Tunes. And while people may debate the relative quality of any of those productions – they may dislike the story, the casting, the character design – one thing they rarely complain about is the quality of the animation itself. WBA knows what it’s doing.

And frankly, the notion of using animation for science fiction just plain makes sense. When you’re telling a story in a world beyond our own – be it sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or superheroes – the special effects are often make-or-break. The filmmakers have to convincingly create something that does not exist in the world and put it in front of an audience in a way that it appears real. Some people are great at this. Some people are not. Animation removes that requirement. Star Trek is often derided for its reliance on “rubber forehead aliens” – in other words, alien species that are created by slapping some prosthetics on human actors. Well what else were you supposed to do, especially with the budget and technological limitations of television in the 1960s? When the Star Trek animated series was created, for the first time, there were recurring alien creatures who were not wholly humanoid, such as the tripedal Edosian officer Arex. Even in modern times, where improved effects make it easier to show things that are less human, we still see a much wider variety of alien species on the animated series Lower Decks and Prodigy than we do on any of the live-action Treks, and you never hear anyone say that they look “fake”.

I mean, in live action this guy might look silly.

What about superhero movies? Since Marvel Studios changed the way blockbusters are made, the “Pfft” crowd has come out in force to complain about the overabundance of special effects that are used. “Did you see the new Ant-Man movie?” they say, ignorantly forgetting that the Wasp receives equal billing with her partner. “It’s just a couple of people in CGI suits in front of a green screen for two and a half hours.”

You know what movie they never say that about? The Incredibles.

In fact, after The Incredibles and the largely-forgotten but highly-enjoyable TMNT (an animated feature starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that you likely didn’t know existed) I came to the opinion that animation is the perfect medium for superhero movies. I’m not saying that animating a huge action sequence is easy, but when literally the entirety of the universe is created digitally or on a drawing board, there are fewer limitations. The live action Marvel movies recognize this, which is the reason they’re so heavily reliant on CGI these days. And while their live action features have been a mixed bag, DC’s animated superhero projects have been a hallmark of quality ever since Batman: The Animated Series. Even non-superhero, non-science fiction movies do this these days. I’ll never forget the hilarious moment when Disney’s “live action” remake of The Lion King had so little live action that the Golden Globes nominated it for Best Animated Feature. I still laugh about that.

Superheroes and animation go together like ham and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, sauteed sea bass and rum raisin ice cream…

Animation is a medium. It’s a method of telling a story, and dismissing an entire medium because of what you perceive it to be is a kind of ignorance. If the Babylon 5 animated film comes out and underwhelms…well, that would suck. I love B5 and I want more stories in that universe, and I think that the success or failure of this film will impact the odds of that happening in the near future. But if it turns out to be a dud, there’s one thing I’m sure about: it won’t be because it was “just a cartoon.”

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Thanks to his wife, Erin, for reminding him to include the Futurama example when he told her what this week’s column would be about. 

Geek Punditry #16: The Case For Star Trek: Legacy

You know, I had a column planned this week. Took some notes. Had it mapped out in my brain. And then I went and watched the finale of Star Trek: Picard, the magnificent, joyous finale that was honestly everything I wanted it to be, and suddenly what I was going to write about has gone completely out of my head. Instead, this week, I’m going to look ahead to the future of Star Trek – specifically about Picard showrunner Terry Matalas’s proposed Star Trek: Legacy series, and why it needs to happen. So here’s your warning, friends: after this point there WILL be spoilers for Picard, all the way to the final credits. If you haven’t watched it yet, continue reading at your own risk.


After two seasons of Picard that were disjointed and felt forced, the third and final season gave fans what we wanted all along: a suitable ending for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The last time we saw these characters together in canon was in the film Star Trek: Nemesis, which left us on a bittersweet note that was never resolved. Data was destroyed, Will Riker and Deanna Troi went off to the Titan, and the heroes we’d come to love were scattered to the cosmic winds. In this final season of Picard, Terry Matalas brought back Data and reunited the seven core cast members of The Next Generation (well…EIGHT core members, actually, since he even resurrected the Enterprise-D) so that their story could end the way they deserved. Now, rather than leaving behind our friends in a state of mourning, we say farewell to them as they are together, happy, and in the wake of their greatest triumph. This is something that cannot be said for the characters in any other Star Trek series, and if this is in fact the last time we see these heroes (and I suspect it is at least the last time we see them all together), it is a fitting goodbye.

But Matalas did not JUST reunite the TNG crew. He also built a new crew, combining a few of the characters from the first two seasons of Picard with others created for this season, and we leave them on the bridge of the Titan, newly rechristened as the USS Enterprise-G. It is at this point that Matalas is staring Paramount executives in the eye and challenging them to greenlight a series about this new crew, a series he has been calling Star Trek: Legacy to anybody who’ll listen, even though it hasn’t actually been approved by Paramount.


Let’s talk about the reasons that a Terry Matalas-led Star Trek: Legacy is not only possible, but exactly what long term Trek fans are hungry for.


“Look at us! Here we are! Right where we belong…”

After Nemesis, every Trek series or movie for nearly two decades went backwards in time. Star Trek: Enterprise was about the ship that led to the creation of the Federation, the J.J. Abrams movies showed us the crew of the original series in an alternate timeline, and Discovery started its first season about a decade or so before the original series. Without debating the relative quality of any of these projects, none of them moved forward in the time period that fans had come to love through three series and four movies. That didn’t happen until Picard. And with that series finished, we are once again left without a continuation of that period in live action. Strange New Worlds and the upcoming Starfleet Academy series are in different points in the timeline, and while the animated Prodigy series seems to be in that time period (it’s honestly a little nebulous exactly where it falls), I think most fans probably join me in wanting a flagship series set in the 25th century. 

This is the most well-developed era in the Trek timeline, with elements from TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all in play, and so far the only show that’s playing with all these toys is the animated comedy Lower Decks. And while it’s true that eras that have not been explored as much have room for development, that doesn’t quench the thirst for exploration of the storylines, cultures, alien races, and characters we already know. A show set in this time period would allow us to check in with those elements and see where they go in the future – something that would be inevitable with Voyager alumni Seven of Nine as captain of the Enterprise-G and two members of the bridge crew whose parents are members of the TNG crew. (Not to mention the fact that Riker and Troi have a daughter who is currently enrolled in Starfleet Academy, and could easily join the show later if we really wanted to ramp up the fan service). 

It would also allow the show to address the one glaring absence from Picard: the characters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. For the first eight episodes of the season the major threat were the Changelings, the main antagonists from DS9, but except for Worf nobody from DS9 ever made an appearance. I suspect we probably would have seen them if not for the passing of Rene Auberjonois, who played the Changeling Odo on that series – but alas, it was not to be. Regardless of why we didn’t see them, DS9 remains my favorite Trek series, and a Legacy show could (and should) check in on the station, what’s been going on with Bajor since the Dominion War…maybe even finally provide some resolution to the final fate of Captain Benjamin Sisko.


There are a lot of letters left in the alphabet.

When the original Star Trek series debuted in 1966, there wasn’t necessarily a conceit that there was anything special about the ship among the other ships in the fleet except that it was the one we were following. Throughout the show and the original movies, though, we got the impression that the Enterprise crew stood out, and by the time TNG launched in 1987, it was declared that the Enterprise was the name given to the flagship of Starfleet. This was codified with the Star Trek: Enterprise series, which retroactively applied that name to the first ship capable of Warp 5, and the adventures of that particular crew led to the birth of the United Federation of Planets. The point is, while the Star Trek universe is vast and diverse with room for many, many stories, the Enterprise is the core of that universe.

True, we have Strange New Worlds, which is set on the Enterprise NCC-1701 in the pre-Kirk years, but that’s kind of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love SNW, but the inherent difficulty with any prequel series is that certain elements are closed off as storytelling avenues. At no point in SNW are you ever going to fear that the ship will be destroyed or that any of the characters who show up in the original series, such as Spock or Dr. M’Benga, are in mortal danger. There can be great adventures told with Pike’s Enterprise, but it will inevitably be trapped in the “past” of Star Trek. The 25th century, for many fans, is the “present,” and we haven’t had canonical, ongoing stories of an Enterprise in that time period since TNG went off the air in 1994. The look of the ship can change, the crew can change, the letter at the end of the registry number can change, but the fact of the matter is that without an Enterprise, Star Trek simply isn’t complete. As Jack Crusher observed when the Enterprise-G was unveiled, “Names mean almost everything.”


“Um, you got something on your…on your face…oh, dear God…”

In addition to bringing back the TNG crew one last time, Picard also gave a definitive, final conclusion to the story of that era’s greatest threat: the Borg. When this malevolent race was introduced in TNG it was a terrifying idea: an artificial intelligence that propagated by taking the technology of conquered worlds and transforming the biological inhabitants of the destroyed civilizations into mindless drones, kind of like when Disney buys a new IP. But like many popular villains, the Borg got a little overused over the years (even as recently as season two of Picard). What the finale gave us was one last face-off between the Borg Queen and Jean-Luc Picard, one that was eminently satisfying, but also done in a way that should take the Borg off the table for good.

(I say “should” here because I’m realistic. With any long-running franchise, eventually new hands will take over, and when that happens they often will bring back the elements they loved from the past. Someday somebody WILL sit down in a Paramount boardroom and say, “Okay, here’s how we’re gonna bring the Borg back.” It’s inevitable. But I don’t think it will happen soon and I don’t think that person will be Terry Matalas.)

With the Borg gone, it’s time to bring in new threats, new enemies, new villains. This is a chance to have a fresh start in a familiar setting, which from a creative standpoint can be a hell of a lot of fun.


“Okay, now that I’m captain, when is it my turn to kill Tuvix?”

Like I said, the way Matalas stacked the crew of the Enterprise-G was a straight-up challenge to Paramount, loading the bridge with characters that matter to us. We already knew Seven of Nine from Voyager of course, but the crew also includes Picard’s former aide Rafi, who after two years finally spent this season blossoming into a compelling character through her partnership and friendship with Worf. We have Jack Crusher, son of Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard, who seems to have embraced his parents’ philosophy after struggling with it for some time. We have Sidney “Crash” LaForge at the helm, piloting the ship and determined to get out of the shadow of her legendary father. Over the course of this season we grew to care about these characters. Beyond the previous relationship between Seven and Rafi, we also saw Seven and Jack build a rapport which paid off when she named him a special counselor to the Captain. There was also a clear chemistry between Jack and Sidney, and the idea of Geordi LaForge showing up periodically to bristle at his daughter flirting with Jean-Luc Picard’s son is absolutely delicious. 

Matalas crafted these characters in such a way that the potential is obvious, and showcased them to make us want more. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he closed the series with a mid-credit stinger in which Jack Crusher meets his dad’s best frenemy, Q, who tells Jack that his own trials are just beginning. Translating this scene into Klingon and back again reveals that what he REALLY means is, “Come on, Paramount+, I double dog dare you to greenlight this spinoff.”

And then there’s the elephant in the room.


The most beloved dipshit ever to come out of Chicago.

Liam Shaw, played by Todd Stashwick, was introduced in the first episode of this season as captain of the Titan, and he initially came across as an antagonist. He didn’t like Seven of Nine, even though she was his first officer. He had no respect for Picard and Riker when they came on to his ship and tried to divert his mission. He even insulted Picard’s wine, setting up what would turn out to be one of the season’s best running gags. But by the end of the first episode you knew who Liam Shaw was: an asshole that you couldn’t stand and couldn’t wait to see get what was coming to him.

Then something magic happened.

We realized that nothing Shaw was doing was out of line. These two relics, neither of whom had any official standing with Starfleet at the moment, showed up on his ship and tried to send him off on a very spurious mission with no orders and a half-assed explanation, almost destroying the ship and killing everybody in the process. We, the audience, trust Picard and Riker because we’ve known them since jelly bracelets were in fashion, but Shaw has no such luxury. As for his relationship with Seven, as it turns out he was a survivor of Wolf 359, the most infamous Borg attack of all time (before this one), which happened to be led by Picard himself during the time he was assimilated. The man probably had to deal with PTSD every time he looked at Seven. 

Shaw’s abrasive qualities became part of his charm, especially as he continued to show himself to be highly qualified and competent, not only as Captain, but also as an engineer later on in the season. His voluminous ego doesn’t go away, but it also doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing, as we see when he gets injured a few episodes later and immediately transfers command of the Titan to Riker, a man he clearly doesn’t like, because he knows it’s the best chance for survival. Over nine episodes Shaw goes from an unlikable asshole to a tremendously likable asshole.

And then he dies.

Not a pointless, meaningless death, not a Tasha Yar death. Liam Shaw dies to buy Picard and the others time to escape the Borg as they’re taking over the Titan, and with his last breath passes his ship over to Seven of Nine (using her chosen name for the first time). Then, just to rub a little salt in the wound, we later found out that he had already recommended Seven’s promotion to captain even before the events of the season had begun.

But he’s dead, right? So why does it even matter?

Come on, guys. Since when has being dead ever stopped a great character? The entire season was filmed before it premiered, so there was no way of knowing just how much the fans would grow to embrace Liam Shaw when the decision was made to kill him off, but Matalas says he has an idea for how to bring him back if and when the opportunity presents itself. As for the question of what to do with him afterwards…honestly, I’m not sure. They won’t (and shouldn’t) take Seven out of the Captain’s chair to make room for him, and I certainly don’t want to see another series with a painfully dubious chain of command such as has plagued Discovery since the end of season one, but I want more stories with Liam Shaw. And I know I’m not alone.

Hell, maybe he’d be happy to step out of the command chair and become chief engineer.

Let’s take one last look at the most beautiful bird in the galaxy.

There’s an adage in the entertainment business that giving the audience what they want isn’t necessarily the best way to tell a story. But sometimes you go so far in the opposite direction that you wind up with a stupid, chaotic, and utterly insulting mess that seems more like they actively hate the audience that made them successful in the first place, and here I am specifically thinking of what Marvel Comics insists on doing with The Amazing Spider-Man. Season three of Picard has proven there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want, you just need to find a good story in which to do it. Terry Matalas did that this season, and he knocked it out of the park. He’s earned the right to do it again.

Star Trek: Legacy, Paramount.

Make it so.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He also wants to push his idea for a Star Trek: Fleet Museum animated anthology series, where in each episode a holographic tour guide based on Geordi LaForge tells a story about one of the legendary ships in his museum to a pack of tourists. He’s not kidding about this. Call him, Paramount, you all should talk. 

Geek Punditry #15: How Lucy Gave Us the Arc

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, for a lot of people, familiar TV shows, books, and movies, act as a kind of pop culture comfort food, something that calms, soothes, and entertains you almost as much as a visit with an old friend. We rewatch these shows because the familiarity does us good and makes us happy, and that’s what makes Pluto TV the best app around, in my opinion. Pluto TV gives you (free) access to hundreds of channels that provide you with this sort of entertainment. There are channels dedicated to old sitcoms, channels dedicated to old gameshows, an entire channel that shows reruns of The Carol Burnett Show, another that gives you a steady stream of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one that’s all RiffTrax, and two separate channels dedicated to repeats of the various Star Trek series. My son specifically asks to watch “Nick Jr. on Pluto TV” as opposed to asking for a particular show, and as that has weaned him away from YouTube I’m not complaining in the slightest. There are also channels for news, sports, music, movies, cartoons, and (for my wife) true crime shows and documentaries. It’s honestly an app that has something for everyone. 

I swear they’re not paying me to say this. I just really like it.

But most pertinently to this week’s Geek Punditry, there’s a channel that only shows episodes of I Love Lucy, the timeless sitcom about the love between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and the barely-disguised loathing of their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. To my surprise, once we added the Lucy channel to our regular Pluto TV rotation, I learned that my wife had not watched this show growing up, so for her, it’s all new. It’s given me a good excuse to voraciously rewatch the show and, since Pluto shows the entire series in order, it’s also allowed me to notice something that hadn’t occurred to me before.  I don’t need to remind anyone what a groundbreaking, legendary series this was, about how it literally invented the rerun, how it pioneered the three-camera setup used by many sitcoms ever since, or about how Lucille Ball was simply one of the funniest human beings ever to walk the Earth. But what I didn’t realize until recently is that Lucy and Desi also apparently invented – or at least codified – one of the primary elements of television that exists today: the story arc.

“Luuuuuucy…are you breaking new ground in televised entertainment AGAIN?”

These days, of course, arcs are commonplace, and no longer the purview of only soap operas. Babylon 5 is largely responsible for bringing the technique to science fiction, blazing a trail that shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began to follow a few years later. Then Lost premiered in 2004, probably the first mega-hit to run with an ongoing storyline, and since then almost any drama that isn’t a police procedural (and many that are) has followed suit. 

Comedies were a different breed, though. A “sitcom” is literally a “situation comedy,” and changing up the situation was a big no-no. In the past TV comedies existed in a state of permanent status quo, where anything that changed in the story had to be changed back by the end of the episode. If it was a show about a nuclear family, that family stayed nuclear. If it was a show about a workplace, the people employed at that workplace stayed constant. Nobody ever moved away without moving right home again, nobody in the main cast ever got married or divorced, and if somebody lost their job, they had to regain it in 30 minutes or less. There’s a single episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph is laid off but they forgot to put him back behind the wheel of the bus before the episode ended. They simply ignored it the next week and moved on as if nothing had happened, but it was so shocking that it became a punchline in an episode of Family Guy decades later.

“When I catch the guy who forgot to gimme my job back, BANG! ZOOM!”

Now I could be wrong. I’m not a TV historian, and I know that things like radio dramas and soap operas had arc-based stories for some time, but when it comes to primetime shows, especially comedies, I feel like this is another area where Lucy broke new ground. Over the six seasons of the show, I count no less than six storylines that can legitimately be described as “arcs” (which, for ease of discussion, I will hereby define as a story thread or change to the status quo that carries through multiple episodes before resolution). The first was a matter of necessity: when Lucille Ball was pregnant during the second season of the show, they decided to incorporate it into the story rather than disguise it like so many shows have done before and since. (It was not, however, the first TV show to depict a pregnancy, as is often erroneously reported. A mostly-forgotten show called Mary Kay and Johnny actually beat them to the punch by a full four years, and they did it for the same reason that Lucy did.) Lucy’s pregnancy was announced in season 2, episode 10 and the baby was born in episode 16, with the five episodes in-between pretty much all dealing with the pregnancy as that episode’s major plot point.

Before and, for a time, after the birth of Little Ricky, I Love Lucy was mostly content with the one-off stories that were sitcom staples. In season 4, however, things changed with an absolutely massive arc in which the cast uprooted and went to Hollywood. It started in season 4, episode 6, when Ricky had a screen test with a movie producer. The next couple of episodes dealt with him waiting to hear back about the test, getting an offer to do a movie, planning a trip to Hollywood with the Mertzes for some reason, and several episodes of buying a car, fixing up the car, and driving from New York to California before finally arriving in Hollywood in episode 17. The cast stayed in California for the remainder of the 30-episode season, not returning home to New York until episode 6 of season 5. The arc was in many ways an excuse to bring in a bunch of celebrity guest stars like John Wayne and Harpo Marx, but it was still an unprecedented change to a series of this nature.

“Do you really think they’ll watch five episodes of us driving?”
“Of course they will, Nintendo hasn’t been invented yet.”

They didn’t stay home very long, though. In episode 10 of season 5, Ricky’s band is given an opportunity to tour Europe, and after a few episodes of getting a passport and (again) planning a trip with the Mertzes, they set off on a cruise ship in episode 13 and then continued traveling the continent for the remainder of the season’s 26 episodes. 

Season 6, the final season of the show in its original form, brought with it two more arcs. The first one, once again, was based on travel, with episodes 6-9 centered around a vacation to Miami and to Cuba to meet Ricky’s relatives (with the Mertzes). The final arc is a little harder to define, but it’s there. In episode 15, Lucy decides she’s tired of city life and wants to move to the country. Cue several episodes about buying a house, moving, and settling down in their new home, along with the Mertzes, proving that Bert and Ernie’s was not television’s first codependent relationship. Episode 20 is about the Ricardos and Mertzes trying (hilariously) to start up an egg farm, and that’s where I declare the “arc” over, as the remainder of the season’s (and series’) 27 episodes didn’t really deal with the move anymore, but the fact that they were new in town did still turn up as a plot point more than once.

No other show at the time had ever done so many extended storylines, especially nothing as long as the Hollywood arc, and it was a long time before such things were handled the same way. While changes in the status quo began to be allowed, they still often took the form of a single episode where a change was made and a new status quo took over: the move of the Laverne and Shirley characters to California, Richie joining the Army and leaving Happy Days, and of course, the infamous introduction of Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch are good examples of this. Changes were happening, but they were done so quickly that it was almost like a whole new show took over after an episode rather than the sort of slow burn that Lucy and Desi pulled off.

No matter how mad you are about what happened on your favorite show, remember, it could be worse.

Comedies now embrace arcs as well. The Office, for example, started off with the unrequited love between Jim and Pam, which was the sort of thing that sitcoms had always done, but then they did something shocking in season three and (gasp) REQUITED it. So they needed new arcs. They had the “Michael Scott Paper Company” storyline, the Sabre arc, the Dwight/Angela/Andy love triangle, and assorted other storylines of varying length and quality. Most other successful sitcoms these days bring in arcs after a while, if not built in to the DNA of the series from the very beginning. But as I sit there with Pluto TV showing me Lucy spending two episodes ruining and then trying to fix John Wayne’s footprints in wet cement in the middle of their year-long brush with Hollywood, I am in awe of the people who blazed the trail for everyone else.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He didn’t even touch on the Pluto channels for Doctor Who, Top Gear, or The Price is Right, because how much awesome can you realistically handle in one column? 

Geek Punditry #14: Filling In the Gaps

I’ve been reading comic books pretty much since I learned to read. The hook caught me when I was still in elementary school and my dad brought home a box of Archie Comics from a co-worker, and it was set even more firmly when my uncle gave me some old issues of Green Lantern and Legion of Super-Heroes he had. And much like watching your favorite TV show over and over, rereading old comic books is a form of comfort entertainment for folks like me. Oh sure, I still read new stuff, but revisiting the classics is like a shot of dopamine straight to the ol’ cerebral cortex (or wherever dopamine goes). The digital revolution in media has made that easier. You can find old stories you lost years ago, voraciously read precious comics without the fear of damaging those pristine back issues in your collection, or FINALLY read that missing issue of Power Pack you could never find as a kid that explained why the hell all of the kids had suddenly traded super powers and how the Snarkwars ended. This was serious business, friends.

Imagine waiting 35 years for apps to be invented so you could finally read this.

Of course, not everything is available digitally, not yet anyway. With nearly a century of comic books to digitize before they can be made available (and rights issues tying up a lot of them in various ways), the dream of a single device from which you can read every comic book ever made is probably going to remain a dream. But with Marvel Comics boasting over 30,000 comics on its app and DC hosting a library of over 24,000, it could practically take a lifetime to go through the stuff that’s already out there. Psyched for the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie? You can read every issue of their series right now. Pumped for the Blue Beetle film? The history of Jaime Reyes awaits you! Want to go back to the beginning? Check out every appearance of Superm–

Oh, wait.

Actually, not every issue of the assorted Superman comics from the past 85 years is among the 24K titles DC Universe Infinite has waiting for you. As every American learns in first grade, Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and appeared in nearly every one of the title’s 904 issues before DC’s line-wide relaunch in 2011. But of those 904 issues, only 463 of them are on DCUI as of this writing. There are similar gaps in the other long-running Superman titles such as Superman and Adventures of Superman. Clark’s buddy Bruce Wayne has a similar problem: of the 811 pre-reboot issues of his flagship Detective Comics, DCUI has 696 as of now, again, with similar gaps in his other titles. Not as bad as the voids in Superman’s history, but still frustrating.

You’re telling me THIS isn’t worth digitizing?

My favorite characters and stories, as you may have noticed, tend to lean more towards DC than Marvel, but I also believe in credit where credit is due, and when it comes to making their library available, Marvel is considerably ahead of DC. You can read almost the entire run of the main series of their flagship properties like Fantastic Four, Avengers, and X-Men, and any gaps that exist are far smaller than those of their rivals. They’re also filling in the gaps much faster, with an almost weekly addition of big chunks of missing books (the last couple of weeks have given us dozens of issues of Dazzler, for instance), whereas DC rarely puts more than five or six older issues up a week, and usually from five or six different series, making it take much longer to complete a run if it gets completed at all.

I know it’s not as simple as pushing a button, of course. For comics that were produced before computer technology became a standard part of the production process (which means practically every comic produced before the 90s and a lot of them after that), digitizing them is a process. You need to find quality prints, scan each page by hand, and remaster them to make for a solid digital reading experience. For many comics, that means completely recoloring them based on the original guides. This takes time and money, so I don’t mind the wait. What bothers me, and a lot of other fans, is the kind of haphazard nature of what gets added. For example, this week’s slate of older books being added to the app includes Creature Commandos #1 from 2000, the first issue of the 1991 update to Who’s Who in the DC Universe, the first issue of the Eclipso: The Darkness Within crossover from 1992, Superman: Day of Doom #1 (a four-issue miniseries from 2002 produced for the 10th anniversary of Superman’s “Death”), and Stormwatch #46 from 1997. They’ve been (slowly) adding Stormwatch for some time now, so that makes sense, and Creature Commandos was part of James Gunn’s big DC announcement from a few weeks ago, so I get that too. The rest of them…baffling. Not that I’m complaining about anything being added, I have no objection to any of these titles. I just can’t figure why they’re going to those books when they haven’t yet added, for example, issues #216-274 of The Flash.

Less important than Creature Commandos #1.

Some things will probably never get digitized, I know that. For example, I’ve got no idea who currently owns the rights to the Adventures of Bob Hope, Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners series launched in the 50s, and I doubt anybody except me actually cares. There are issues of the old Showcase anthology series that featured licensed characters DC has no rights to, such as G.I. Joe and James Bond, and which will almost certainly never be seen on the app. Then there’s Sovereign Seven, a series by legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, set in the DC Universe and often guest-starring DC characters, but for which the copyright was held by Claremont and artist Dwayne Turner. It would probably take some sort of monetary agreement between all the parties involved to add that series, and with so many other books still waiting for their shot, it seems unlikely that DC will make the effort to do so any time soon.

Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to know what happens next.

Then there are long runs of Green Lantern and Justice League Europe from the 90s that now present serious problems because the writer, Gerard Jones, plead guilty to possession of child pornography in 2018. Here’s a case where it’s perfectly understandable that DC doesn’t want to do anything that looks like they’re promoting his work or having to pay him royalties, and I don’t blame them for that. But it sucks for the other writers and artists who worked on those comics and who, through no fault of their own, find their back catalogs throttled. It also leaves us a case where some pretty big storylines are missing or incomplete, both for DC and Marvel. (Most notably for Marvel, Jones wrote what is to date the only ongoing Wonder Man series. With that character slated to get a Disney+ MCU series, normally you would expect his comics to be fast tracked for inclusion on the app, but as of now the only issues available are a few that are chapters in the Avengers crossover series, Operation: Galactic Storm.) 

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is because DC recently held their first “Backlist Breakout” poll for users of the DCUI app. Users were presented with a slate of eight titles not currently available and were asked to vote on which ones we wanted to move to the front of the queue, with the top three promised to be added to the app beginning in June. My vote was for one of the eventual winners, DC Challenge, a miniseries from the 80s where an all-star group of writers and artists participated in a sort of “exquisite corpse” experiment: the first team produced an issue of a DC crossover and then handed it off to the next team to continue the story with no instructions or input, figuring it out as they went along. This kind of storytelling has been done in books and other forms of entertainment, and the result was a delightfully insane comic that went totally off the rails, leaving the creators of the last issue the unenviable task of trying to make sense of a plot that had ballooned to include time travel, Nazis, the planet Earth itself being moved to another galaxy, and Groucho Marx. I cannot wait to read it again.

The most important vote you’ll cast this year.

The other two winners in this round are books I’ve never read: the five issues of the 1967 Blue Beetle series (featuring Ted Kord, not Jaime, and published by Charleton Comics, but which DC owns the rights to) and the first 12 issues of the seminal fantasy series Warlord. The support for Warlord on the DC boards made its victory seem almost a foregone conclusion, and I look forward to it, since I’ve never read those issues. But it does open up another problem. Only the first 12 issues of Warlord have been promised. That’s 12 out of a series that ran for 133 issues plus six annuals. If fans want to see issues #13-24, Warlord is going to have come out triumphant again in the NEXT round of “Backlist Breakout” this summer. And then keep winning, every twelve issues, again and again, to finally make the whole series available. If it fails to win in even one round fans will be left dangling, their series put on a shelf with other unfinished titles like Adventure Comics, Doom Patrol, and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane.

“Is this a joke to you?”

Again, I don’t mind waiting for everything to be digitized. And I even like the idea of “Backlist Breakout” making a game out of deciding what the next goodie added to DCUI will be. But there are some gaps that are so conspicuous that I just can’t figure out why DC isn’t doing anything to fix them right now.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is admittedly thrilled that DC finally finished adding Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew to the app a while back, but he’s quite put out that they haven’t gotten around to the three-issue Oz/Wonderland War miniseries that wrapped up the original Zoo Crew’s story yet. 

Geek Punditry #13: What IS Geek Punditry, Anyway?

In the first week of January, I challenged myself to carve out a little time, once a week, to write something in this new “Geek Punditry” space I created. I’ve been using the term for years, calling myself a “Geek Pundit” in various online bios because I thought it was a clever phrase that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else was using. (But to be honest, I never really looked, either. I could be wrong.) But as we finish up the first quarter of 2023 (motto: No, it’s not getting any better), it occurred to me that I never quite explained what I mean by Geek Punditry. What is this space about? What qualifies something for this kind of discussion? And most importantly, why should you care?

Would you listen to this man?

I’ll answer the last question first: you shouldn’t. Not unless you want to, that is, and that’s what makes my task challenging. A pundit, by definition, is an expert on a given topic that is called upon to present opinions on the subject. So clearly, as a title, it’s ridiculous, and that’s why I like it. It’s a title that sounds slightly pretentious, but hopefully is silly enough to communicate the fact that I’m trying to mock pretention rather than indulge in it. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, but I think a lot about everything, and putting those thoughts down helps me to declutter my horrifically unorganized mind. As for the second part, “called upon to present opinions”…what is there to say? I’m well aware of the fact that nobody is asking me what I think of anything. I’m the living embodiment of those memes that start with “Nobody: [Blank space]. Nobody at all: [Blank Space],” and then a picture of SpongeBob blurting out something about Squidward. And since nobody has any compelling reason to give a damn what I have to say, the burden falls upon me to make what I have to say interesting. If you’ve read this far, I flatter myself by assuming that I at least haven’t bored you silly yet.

So back to the first part of the question: what does “Geek Punditry” mean? In simple terms, it’s talking and opining about geeky things. It’s not a new concept, of course, but there’s another term that’s been used pretty much since the invention of art: critical analysis. It’s about the discussion and dissection of art of all kinds, and it’s an ancient art all its own. I have no doubt that the first time some caveman picked up a stick and drew a picture of a saber-toothed tiger in the dirt, some other guy scoffed at it and kicked it aside so as to indicate that his blind 32-year-old great grandmother could draw a better tiger than him. The first guy then began to wildly gesticulate, which the second guy took as him being angry over the analysis. The second guy then laughed and communicated, through grunts and hoots, “What, can’t you take a joke?” Then he laughed a little more and then the first guy took a swing at him, at which point, both of them were eaten by the tiger that the first guy was trying to warn the second guy about in the first place. Which brings me to one of the central rules of MY version of Geek Punditry: Being critical is one thing, but being mean about it is just stupid.

“Did you see what Ug calls a buffalo? I’m gonna discover fire so I can tell him to go die in one.”

That’s not to say one can’t have a negative opinion, of course. It’s almost impossible to have any kind of intelligent analysis without criticism of some kind. But there’s no reason to be a dick about it. If you have ever – to give a totally hypothetical example that could never, ever happen in real life – bullied an actress on social media to the point where she deletes her account, I don’t care how bad the movie may be, you’re the bad guy. If you’ve ever threatened violence against someone because they wrote something you didn’t like, you’re the bad guy. If you’ve ever harassed, threatened, or wished violence against somebody because they’re married to/the parent of/the child or/the dog groomer of a celebrity that you have some sort of personal grudge against – and I cannot believe I have to say this – you are the bad guy. If your posts include the words “cancer” or “kill yourself,” I don’t even want to know you.

But those are just the most obvious examples of people being awful human beings and attempting to shield themselves by calling it “criticism.” There are other forms that are less obvious and far more insidious, and most of these fall under the general category of “clickbait.” How many times have you seen some online “think piece” that explains in great detail why a movie or TV show that you enjoyed as a child is actually awful, terrible, and something you should be ashamed of yourself for ever indulging in? I saw three of them today before I even got dressed to go to work. What the hell is the point of that?

“Today on Buzzfeed: 12 Muppets who totally would have given Mengele asylum in Brazil.”

Well, the point is obvious, actually, it’s about getting clicks. Websites like that run off of advertising, and every time you click on a link their ads generate some fraction of a cent, so it’s in their best interest to write things that will make you click. And the sad truth , my friends, is many people are far more likely to click on something if they find it infuriating. Otherwise, there would be absolutely no point to publishing these things. This is not to say that everything we loved when we were younger was perfect. A lot of us look on the movies and TV shows of our youth through rose-colored glasses, and more than once I have gone back to something I used to watch over and over as a child only to realize, as an adult, that it ain’t that great. But most of it is also harmless, something that has been largely left in the past and gives people fond memories, so why dredge it up just to upset people about something that previously brought them joy? The advantage I have here, I suppose, is that I have absolutely no expectation of making money off this blog, so I have no incentive to piss people off solely in the name of getting them here. I’d rather talk about the things that I love with other people that love them too.

The sad state of modern criticism both depresses and fascinates me, because people have been making a living as critics for a very long time. In high school, we used to go to the library and use these massive encyclopedia-sized sets of books of literary criticism for use in research papers and annotated bibliographies. These volumes contained thousands of articles published in journals over a couple of hundred years of writers writing about writing that other writers had written. It was full of analysis of every significant writer from Chaucer to Faulker. There was stuff both about and by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. There were entire spinoff volumes devoted specifically to writers of science fiction. And one can only imagine how many such articles were left uncollected because either the critic or the object of their criticism had faded into obscurity. Doesn’t that sound amazing? If ever there was evidence that I was born in the wrong century, it’s the existence of these books. 

Then there are film critics, which is probably the form of criticism that most of us are more familiar with. Guys like Siskel and Ebert made their names not by trashing everything they didn’t like (although they were not above doing that from time to time) but by explaining their opinions in a concise, intelligent way. I loved their TV show back in the day, I looked forward to watching it almost as much as I looked forward to watching the movies themselves. It’s because of them, as much as anything else, that I try my damndest to explain what I like or dislike about something, and why I try not to offer an opinion on something I haven’t seen or read personally. As a policy, the majority of social media would find this position baffling. 

I included this bit mostly so I could draw your attention to the hilarious Newsradio joke about these guys.

And when it comes to critical analysis, let us not forget the man with the mutton chops, Isaac Asimov. The good professor wrote or contributed to over 500 books in his lifetime, or roughly two and a half Stephen Kings. Most people today know him as a science fiction writer who also wrote about science or a scientist who also wrote science fiction. But he also wrote mystery novels. He wrote a guide to the Bible. He wrote jokebooks in which he broke down and analyzed the jokes, breaking the cardinal rule of not explaining why something is funny, and yet doing so in an entertaining fashion. He wrote one of the most intriguing guides to Shakespeare I’ve ever read! My wife found Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare on eBay for me years ago because she’s awesome (there’s some advice, young people – if you plan to get married, marry someone awesome) and it’s actually making me a better teacher. Asimov not only explains his personal feelings about the plays, but also provides some interesting and, in some cases, essential context that makes it a lot easier to understand the more perplexing moments in the bard’s work. For example, I could never adequately explain to my students why it was so easy for Claudius to take his brother’s throne even though Hamlet quite clearly was old enough to become king. It never quite made sense to me, either. Asimov explains: at the time in which the play was set, succession did not automatically go from father to son, but rather a new king was selected from the members of the royal family. Claudius (with a little help from Polonius) managed to convince the nobles that he was the best choice before Hamlet could get his Danish butt back in the country, no doubt furious that televised campaign ads wouldn’t be invented until the 20th century. Now I know, and it’s because of the greatest Geek Pundit of all time. If Western Civilization has ever produced a bigger Geek than Isaac Asimov, I don’t know who it is. And I say that with the utmost respect.

This is what I was going for in that first picture, actually.

As with so many things, though, the digital revolution has largely eroded the ability to actually make a living with criticism of any kind. The number of full-time film and book critics has dwindled dramatically as newspapers and magazines go out of business, and while any of them can easily make a home for themselves on the web, the internet isn’t paying out for that sort of thing in a substantial way. The advent of AI-generated content is only making it worse. If you’re the type of person who sees a website as a revenue generator first and a place for intelligent discourse second (and placing it second is being extremely generous for most of these sites), it doesn’t make sense to pay an intelligent critic for well-constructed criticism. Just whip up an algorithm that can turn out a 10-point listicle that attacks someone’s childhood and BAM! You’re rolling in microtransactions. You’re the Scrooge McDuck of awfulness.

What happens at the “Inside the Magic” website office every time you click on an article about 37 ways to get a venereal disease in the Disney parks.

Here’s why I do this, folks. I like things. And I like liking things. And I like discussing the things I like. That’s why I wrote for Comixtreme for years, that’s why I hosted a podcast until parenthood took away both my time and my ability to have a single room in the house quiet enough to record. And that’s why I’m here now. I’ve come to realize that discussing these things, analyzing these things…it makes me happy. It gives me a place to channel all those thoughts that otherwise barge into my skull at 2 a.m. It gives me somewhere to share all of my ideas about these things that I love without randomly having to turn to my wife in the middle of the grocery store and explain the entire history of Firestorm because something on a box of Rice Krispies made me think of the first time he fought Killer Frost. This column isn’t just me babbling narcissistically. This is my therapy.

Except for my wife and son, I don’t know if there’s anything I enjoy more than talking about things that I enjoy. It’s why I go to comic shops and conventions, why Free Comic Book Day is the best day of the year, why seeing a movie with friends is better than watching it on my phone. It’s why I’m here.

And if you enjoy that sort of thing too, you’re my kind of people. Pull up a chair, I’m happy to have you. It’s just a shame that, in the world we’ve got today, the table feels so empty sometimes. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He apologizes in advance if any of the ads that WordPress places on this site fall under the categories of awfulness he mentioned in the column, and he strongly encourages you not to click on anything. Except for his aforementioned Amazon links.

Geek Punditry #12: Nothing New Under the Sun

One of the most common criticisms of modern movies is that there aren’t any new ideas. People point to the nearly endless stream of sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchises as evidence that Hollywood has run out of creative juice, as if there’s somehow nothing original in seventeen movies about a robot that can turn into a jet ski. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s not really true. There are thousands of scripts circulating in the movie industry at any given time – each year a “Blacklist” is released of the best unproduced scripts currently making the rounds, and some of them eventually find a studio or a director to take them on. The problem isn’t that original stories aren’t out there, it’s that the people holding the strings of the purses are afraid to spend money on them. You can take a chance on that period drama about a coal miner who discovers a secret that will topple a kingdom, or you can make the ninth installment of an action franchise that you know is going to make at least $200 million even if it’s terrible. I’m not saying I agree with this decision, mind you, but I certainly understand it.

Nothing original my shiny hiney.

The other problem with this complaint is the assumption that this is a recent phenomenon, that it’s only in the last few years that this mythical well of creativity has run dry. What happened to those great epic films of the past based on totally original ideas? Things like Jaws or The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments? You know, things that were made from whole cloth. It’s nonsense, of course. People have been borrowing stories since the first story was told. And you know what? That’s okay.

I took a quick glance at IMDB’s top 100 narrative films and counted at least 40 movies that I know are based on books, plays, real life, or are sequels – and those are just the ones I’m aware of. I’m sure that there are more, but I don’t have time to read the trivia on all of them. This also doesn’t count those films that aren’t “official” adaptations, but borrow liberally from earlier stories (such as Star Wars taking elements from Buck Rogers and Hidden Fortress). A large chunk of our most acclaimed cinema is taken from other sources. And there’s nothing wrong with that. William Shakespeare himself “borrowed” from everybody. The histories, obviously, aren’t original ideas, but beyond that we have Romeo and Juliet based on an Italian poem, Othello was lifted from a collection of short stories, and Hamlet was a straight-up ripoff of The Lion King

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fed.

No, seriously, it’s based on an old Danish myth about a young man who has to seek revenge after his father is murdered by his uncle. There were, in fact, several versions of this story going back hundreds of years before Shakespeare cherry-picked his favorite parts of each of them, added a ghost, wrote the song “Hakuna Matata,” and BAM! made it the most famous play in the English language. 

Something else to consider is that as vast as the well of human creativity is, we’ve been exploring it for a really long time, and there aren’t a whole lot of corners left to excavate. Back in 1895, Georges Polti published his list of “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations,” in which he outlined what he believed was every possible plot that any writer can use. Granted, these 36 plots are incredibly simplistic (abduction, revolt, enmity of kin, Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, etc.), but I first read about these plots in a writing book nearly 20 years ago and since then I’ve never come across a story that didn’t fit at least one of them, not even Space Jam. The point, then, is not to come up with an entirely original idea, because that seems to be virtually impossible. The point is to find the story you want to tell, and then tell your version in an entertaining and satisfying way. 

Too many writers get hung up on being original and freeze. A long time ago I had a friend read a story I wrote only to panic when she asked me when was the last time I read The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been years, but upon reflection I realized I used a device remarkably similar to an element from the Narnia novel The Magician’s Nephew. I hadn’t done it intentionally – I hadn’t read the book since elementary school and I had very little memory of it – but the device was so similar I have to concede that I was drawing on it subconsciously. Another time a friend of mine asked me if I’d heard of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and because I trusted his recommendation, I picked up the first book. I loved it and I also got sick to my stomach, because the conceit of the Greek Gods in modern times was something I had been working on in a novel of my own that pretty much died on the vine. I obviously wasn’t stealing that idea, because at the time I had never read Percy before, but the knowledge that there was such a popular book out there that used some of the same ideas slaughtered my enthusiasm for the project. In retrospect, that was a mistake. The take I was planning really wasn’t at all similar to Camp Half-Blood, the only real similarity was that it was contemporary mythological characters, but I was so shaken that I lost the thread of that story and was never able to find it again. 

“Hello, literature police? I’d like to report a murder…of my hopes and dreams.”

Rather than abandoning a story with old roots, a writer should cultivate those roots and find a new way to grow. Stan Lee famously combined Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to create the Incredible Hulk, after all. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven bought stock in decades of slasher movies to give birth to the Scream franchise. George Lucas drew on Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks when he conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I know that sounds like the kind of thing I would make a joke about, but it’s not. That one’s a straight-up fact.)

Let’s go back to Shakespeare. Everyone knows Disney borrowed from Hamlet when they made The Lion King, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, MacBeth became Kurasowa’s Throne of Blood, The Taming of the Shrew became Ten Things I Hate About You. As of this writing, William Shakespeare is credited as a writer for 1746 projects on IMDB. That’s nearly 2000 movies and TV shows, stories told in mediums that were not invented until he had been dead for almost three centuries. (He’s also credited once under “music department” and a baffling SIX times as “additional crew.” I could click on those links for clarification, but I kind of prefer my headcanon, in which he was involved in craft services on the set of The Human Centipede.) 

What’s more, those 1746 credits are only the films that specifically list him as a writer, not those that borrow from him without applying the credit, nor does it account for the thousands of stories that use his work outside of the realms of film and television. I did college and community theater for many years and one the best shows I was ever in was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], a gut-busting comedy featuring three actors trying to perform parts of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in one evening. Then just yesterday I got Ryan North’s book To Be Nor Not to Be, in which he retells Hamlet as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. I’ve read it through once so far, choosing the “original” path of the play before I branch out and test the wackier versions, but even the “original” is really funny. (North also seems to have a much greater fondness for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than most people, treating them in a way that’s very much at odds with Tom Stoppard, who himself used Shakespeare for the basis of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which in turn inspired the epic drama Bubble Guppies.)

“To suffer the slings of outrageous fortune, turn to page 32. To suffer the arrows, turn to page 19.”

A lot of writers wear their influences on their sleeves. Stephen King – who you should realize by now is a perennial favorite of mine – used Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as the launching pad for his own The Dark Tower, the series he calls his “magnum opus.” The series has feelers and roots in dozens of his own novels and short stories, but also in the works of other creators. Along the way he sprinkled in a visit to Oz, a riddle game that feels like Twisted Tolkien Theatre, robots stolen from Marvel Comics, and nuggets of Harry Potter to fill in the gaps. King, in turn, has inspired many other writers, among them his own sons Joe Hill and Owen King and the entire writing staff of the TV show Lost.

Mythology is another popular source to “borrow” stories from, which is why I tried to do it myself before Rick Riordan inadvertently kicked my teeth in. The Odyssey, for example, has been retold multiple times: the Coen brothers transplanted it into turn-of-the 20th Century Mississippi for their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, DC Comics used it as the basis of the Adam Strange/Starfire/Animal Man section of their year-long experimental series 52, and a few years ago some schmuck from Louisiana replaced Odysseus with Santa Claus and tried telling his own version of the story

“My name? Nobody-El.”

DC is actually returning to the Homeric well beginning this week with a series called Superman: Lost. In the first issue of this 10-issue series by writer Christopher Priest and artist Carlo Pagulayan, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are hanging out at home one evening when he’s summoned away by the Justice League to deal with an emergency. He comes back only minutes later, but now he seems to be in a state of shock. After a few panels of Lois trying to figure out what’s happened, Clark drops the bomb that – from his perspective – he’s actually been gone for 20 years. The first issue is excellent, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the story to see why he’s been gone so long, what timey-wimey ball of phlebotinum is going to be applied to bring him back to the present, and how much is borrowed directly from The Odyssey. Priest is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time, so I’ve got plenty of faith going in.

The point is, originality is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. True, it’s always great to be genuinely surprised, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not room for good movies, TV shows, or books that have a familiar flavor. If you don’t like something, fine, that’s your prerogative, but if the only thing wrong with it is that you feel like you’ve seen it before, try to decide if it has other merits before you dismiss it entirely. You may find something worth experiencing after all. 

And if not, just go watch something original and brand-new. Like The Last of Us. Or Wednesday. Or that new show Night Court. Or…

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Please do not mistake this “originality isn’t everything” position as an endorsement of plagiarism or, even worse, using AI to write a story. Both of these are crimes for which you should receive, at minimum, a toilet that won’t stop running all night long even after you take off the top of the tank and stick your hand in the water to try to adjust it. That’s what you’ve got coming to you. Jerk.