San Francisco is magic. I09 highlighted how Toby Harriman, using time lapse and some very smart soundtrack choices, proves that. He turns a city defined by its size and space, by the bay that it wraps around and the bridges that connect it into a still beautiful but darker place. The sort of place that gets the hero it deserves rather than the hero it needs. This is San Francisco as Gotham City and this is your Sunday Moment of Zen.
Leonard Nimoy was a quiet titan. An actor, director, photographer and writer whose career spanned decades and epochal changes in Western society. He was a defining part of the industry I’ve loved, or worked in in some capacity, my entire life. On The Search for Spock he directed one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen, the theft of the Enterprise. In Star Trek IV, he gave every one of his colleagues a moment to shine and showed me the offhand, relaxed beauty of the Bay Area. I fell in love with San Francisco in that movie. Decades later, I’d find out he was telling the truth about the city and I loved it even more. Nimoy’s acting, and direction, on the end scene of both Star Trek III and Star Trek IV is note perfect and uses subtlety, implication and music to create immense emotional impact. The letter ‘A’ has never, and will never have again the emotional impact it does when the crew, and you, see it on the new Enterprise‘s saucer section at the end of Star Trek IV. You’ll see thousands of tributes to him over the next week and each one is deserved. Most will, deservedly, be his work across Star Trek II, III and IV. This one isn’t.
Nimoy starred in an alternate video to Bruno Mars’ ‘The Lazy Song’ in 2011. It’s mischievous, impish stuff that sees him have huge fun playing with the idea of his disreputable old age. May we all be so politely, gleefully subversive. This is your Sunday Moment of Zen.
There are certain rules that tend to be followed for theme tunes. The first is that you get a two to three minute piece of soaring orchestral music designed to introduce your characters and lay out your fictional stall. The second, which really began to get popular through JJ Abrams’ TV shows, is the single note sting. You strike a chord,musically and visually, you throw a single title card out and up you get and off at the gallop. The third is to take a thematically appropriate song and attach it to the show. All of them work, all of them have been used countless times.
Alphas does none of them.
Instead, the first thing you get is chunky, crunchy blues electric guitar. It actually made me sit up straighter the first time I heard it because I was so used to the music in a superhuman show being orchestra, sweeping and dull. Straight away, this is different, a little crumpled, a little angry. This isn’t X-Men, this isn’t Heroes. This is six thousand miles of bad road and tough decisions in musical form.
Then the lyrics kick in. ‘Don’t take no for an answer’ is essentially the mission statement of the show; good people in an odd situation who are overlooked or ignored. This isn’t a show about people defending a world that hates and fears them, it’s a show about normal people locked out of normal lives by the one odd thing they can do, the one blemish, the one defining quality. It’s no accident I suspect that the characters we see most of in the opening credits are Bill, Rachel and Gary. One is perennially grumpy about losing his old life and channels that into his strength, another is constantly overwhelmed by her enhanced senses and the third is so entranced by the web of signal only he can see that he’s functionally autistic. None of them are ‘normal’, none of them are entirely happy with their abilities and all of them have the choice of trying to ignore what they are, of saying no. But like the song says, they don’t take no for an answer. The same lyric fits beautifully into the other characters, Nina and Hicks’ backstories too. One can ‘push’ people into telling her whatever they want and the other has perfect aim and crippling self doubt. Nina’s ability is built around not letting people refuse her, and Hicks’ ability is crippled by his inability to believe in himself. This is the world of the show in a single lyric and a single, gloriously raucous, crumpled ‘bad man walking’ piece of guitar work. The whole thing culminates in the line:
‘People don’t understand, people like me.’
And more of that crunchy guitar. It’s a deliciously ambiguous line to close on, that refers to three separate levels of meaning in the show. The first is the traditional ‘hates and fears them’ aspect of stories like this, with time and again the show proving that the only people who really understand the Alphas are other Alphas. The second layer of meaning is both more ambiguous and more sinister, with the implication that Doctor Rosen is far less knowledgeable about them than he thinks he is and the dangers inherent in that. The show, certainly at the point I’ve watched up to so far, takes great pains to show that the Alpha field team is, potentially, incredibly dangerous and that Rosen is operating on the bare bleeding edge of safety. The theme tune acknowledges this at the same time as layering in a third, equally ambiguous level of meaning. The line can also be read as ‘People don’t understand. People like ME.’. In other words, the theme tune is looking at the Alphas from the outside rather than the inside, with the implied hostility that comes with that and the tacit acknowledgement that they’re outsiders to the point where even they’re own theme music is distanced from them. It’s a remarkably clever piece of narrative commentary that tops off one of the best, most succinct pieces of theme music in recent years. The Alphas theme tells you everything you need to know, sets the tone for the show and keys you into the ambiguities that lie at the show’s heart and does it all in under a minute. Elegant,economic and indidividualistic it’s the perfect encapsulation of the show itself.
This is the piece I submitted to the first 48 Hour Magazine, a fascinating project put together by a group of editors who decided to see if they could take a magazine from concept to proof in 48 hours, the concept for the zero issue being the word ‘hustle’. I put this together, on magic, JJ Abrams and narrative structure and, whilst it didn’t get in, I’m pretty pleased with it.
Pledge, Turn, Prestige, Monster
Magic tricks are the slightly more reputable sibling of con tricks and are designed along the same, basic structure. ‘That structure was articulated by Christopher Priest in his novel The Prestige and is defined as the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is the promise of something extraordinary, the turn is the apparent revelation and the prestige is the actual reveal, the moment you realise that the magician was never standing there, that the silk scarf has become a bird. It’s a simple, elegant framework that can be applied to everything from making a coin disappear to walking through the great wall of China and it’s also one of the secrets of JJ Abrams’ success.
Abrams’ entire career is based on not just a fascination with misdirection and magic but an instinctive understanding of this framework. Lost, Alias and Fringe, the three TV shows he’s best known for all embrace it and interestingly, each one also uses the three stage framework within their pilot episodes. In Lost, the Oceanic 815 survivors not only realise something is wrong with the island but that they’re not alone, in Alias Sydney Bristow not only realises she’s working for the opposite side but becomes a double agent whilst in Fringe, Olivia Dunham not only discovers what the Pattern is but that her colleague Agent John Scott is deeply involved in it. Pledge becomes premise, turn becomes plot, prestige becomes cliffhanger. The three stage magic trick melds with the three act narrative structure to create something intricate, detailed and, in the long run, immensely rewarding.
This is the connective tissue that holds Abrams’ work together as shown by the teaser trailer for his new film, Super 8. It opens with text informing the viewer that in 1979 a section of Area 51 was closed before cutting to a train speeding through the night. We learn that the materials stored at Area 51 were being moved overland to a secure location as, on screen, a pickup truck smashes through the barrier and runs headlong into the train. The train is derailed, cars ripped apart before, finally, silence falls. The text returns, informing us that next summer ‘It Arrives’ as the camera tracks through the wreckage to a large, sealed container with US Air Force stencilled on the side. The side of the trailer deforms and is then thrown outwards as the camera cuts to a close up of a Super 8 film lens with film flickering past it before fading to black.
Now, as pledges go that’s pretty spectacular. In less than two minutes we learn that something awful was moved from Area 51, something unthinkable happened that freed it, that the creature is large, strong and angry and that the film will have something to do with a Super 8 camera. Straight away we get science fiction and horror mixed with conspiracy thriller and a human element, all without meeting any of the principle characters. The message is clear; next summer, innocent people will witness something awful, try and survive it and you’ll be first in line for a ticket.
It’s a classic set up and one Abrams has used before, most notably with the original Cloverfield trailer. With no name and almost no credit text, it was a cut down version of the party scene from the start of the film, culminating in the Statue of Liberty’s head being hurled into the street. Once again, it’s a pledge, a hint of something remarkable designed to intrigue, get the audience’s full attention and bring them closer before the turn.
The teaser trailer for Abrams’ Star Trek uses the turn beautifully, opening with close ups of men constructing something immense as sound bites from the history of space exploration play. It’s only in the final shots, where the camera pans up over the saucer section of the USS Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy says ‘Space, the final frontier’ and the familiar refrain plays that it becomes clear what’s being trailed and the true nature of what you’ve been watching becomes clear. It even throws in a self-deprecating, cheeky prestige as the Starfleet crest appears to the sound of the transporter and the first bars of the original series theme tune before fading out to be replaced by two words:
This wry, self-deprecating sense of humour is just another means of disarming the audience and putting them at ease. It’s also an immensely clever move with Star Trek in particular because it feeds into the affection for the series and the status quo it represents.
Abrams then takes great pleasure in both honouring and subverting that status quo throughout the film, most notably in the opening sequence where the Kirk we meet is revealed not only to be James T. Kirk’s father but has to sacrifice himself in order for his wife, son and friends to survive. It’s a brutal sequence, difficult to sit through even after multiple viewings and there’s a case for it being the film’s turn. After all, everything changes as a result of it and the rest of the film is spent exploring those changes.
However, the real turn arrives at roughly the halfway mark, by which point the sense of familiarity has returned. There are changes certainly; James T. Kirk is a darker, brasher version of his old self, Spock is more emotional but still a genius but they’re fundamentally the same people. The Enterprise looks more futuristic, the special effects are more impressive but, fundamentally, it’s still Star Trek, still familiar, still safe.
Then Vulcan is destroyed.
In a single moment, Abrams, along with scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman change the rules, alter one of the most intricate fictional universes in decades forever and force the audience to pay full attention as they realise that everything is different now. The building blocks, the accepted wisdom of decades of fiction are changed into something new and dangerous and exciting which still, somehow, manages to honour what’s gone before it. This isn’t just a textbook example of how to successfully reinvigorate a franchise, this is magic at it’s purest, taking something that the audience think they know and turning it on its head. It’s the assistant disappearing, the needle going through the balloon, the card appearing inside the sealed box. This is the turn, positioning the audience for the final revelation, the prestige.
The best example of a prestige in Abrams’ work is arguably the end of the pilot episode of Fringe, which deals with both the mystery deaths of everyone aboard an international flight from Berlin and the serious injury of FBI Agent John Scott, caught in an explosion at a storage facility linked to the incident on the plane. Scott’s friend, and lover, Olivia Dunham’s refusal to let him die leads her to defy protocol, track down reclusive genius Walter Bishop and his son, Peter, get Bishop released from a mental asylum and, finally, to both the person responsible for the incident and a cure for Scott. The episode is, by all weights and measures, over, the series’ premise established as Olivia is offered a job investigating Fringe Science cases full time, Walter is reinstalled in his old lab and Peter slowly begins to accept his father.
Then John Scott gets out of bed, goes to the perpetrator’s room and suffocates him. At almost the same time, Olivia discovers evidence that Scott was complicit in the attack, tracks him down and a car chase ensues. Scott is fatally injured and his last moments are spent apologising to Olivia and telling her to ask why.
This by itself would be enough, but the episode’s final scene really drives home the unknown territory the series is running headlong towards. Nina Sharp, the head of Massive Dynamic, a pseudo-Microsoft company helping the government investigate Fringe Science is shown Scott’s body. She asks how long he’s been dead, is told and, after pausing for a moment, says ‘Interrogate him.’
This single moment brings together the mystery surrounding John Scott, the allegiance of Massive Dynamic and the research into communicating with the comatose and dead that Walter successfully uses earlier in the episode to not only set the rest of the series up but neatly place the viewer and Olivia on the same page. Neither know what’s going on and both find themselves wanting answers as the episode finishes. Or to put it another way, the circle is closed, the trick is finished and everyone leaves the theatre asking how it was done.
Pledge, turn and prestige, each not only mapping onto the three act dramatic structure but changing it into something rich and strange. Abrams and his collaborators take this still further, incorporating the elements of magic and misdirection not only into their films and TV series but how these stories are marketed and presented. This is magic not only as a storytelling framework but a tool, a means of not only writing and constructing stories but selling them to an audience. It’s not always successful but it’s always interesting and, with Abrams linked to several major new projects, it’s an approach that’s clearly working. Just remember, the rabbit isn’t always in the hat, and the hat may not be a hat at all.