TV Century 21 (which I collected from the second issue; it was always just “TV21” to me) presented all those Gerry Anderson shows as taking place in one universe, which fuelled the idea that stories don’t have to have an end.
But that’s for kids. The Norse myths mirror the dramas of childhood, where massive fallings-out and reconciliations can happen in the space of a summer’s afternoon and we don’t mind that each morning is a chance to reset the games and interests of the day before.
As we get older, we demand that stories go somewhere. Things must change. And that’s where they can go wrong, because if you’re going to have change you must also have an ending. When a story is forcibly kept going beyond its natural life, the shark is going to be waiting and one day you must jump it. And then we end up wondering what we even saw in that setting and those characters in the first place.
Breaking Bad and The Shield were designed right from the start so that their narrative trajectory would have an end. Likewise the Harry Potter novels. The Sopranos was originally expected to run for a single season, hence the frenzy of plotting in the twelfth and thirteenth episode when commercial success demanded a jolt of boosterspice. I’d rather have had one perfect season myself. A good show should build in its own Hayflick limit.
What goes wrong with an indefinite run? There’s the escalation of dramatic twists. Take Cracker, Jimmy McGovern’s seminal ‘90s TV drama that started so well. After a time, story logic demanded that the danger Fitz and his colleagues tackled would have to strike close to home. But once we’d seen the team sprint to Fitz’s front door once, the next shock twist had to be bigger. One police officer raped another, and then jumped off a roof. Fitz’s family began to be threatened on a regular basis, until finally his son was targeted by a serial killer who strapped him to an electrified bedstead. He was saved from electrocution in the nick of time. If the show had continued, the only place left to go would have been strapping a bomb to the baby’s pram.
Drama isn’t an Escher staircase. You can’t keep upping the threat. But once you succumb to the understandable urge to grab audiences with a big shock, where else can you go? The Doctor has to save the universe every season, and it has to be from a bigger and badder threat, and the personal secrets revealed (or cooked up) have to be ever more profound, ever more earth-shattering. It’s like taking a hit of heroin. You think it’s the answer to everything, but the doses get bigger and eventually you’re going to OD.
But just as toxic as escalating threat is the self-referential archness that creeps into the writing on a long-running series. It’s narrowcasting, as each instalment calls back to events that only the diehard fans remember – and those fans are the ones who wriggle and giggle at every knowing quote, while the rest of us just wonder why the characters are behaving like they’re in a pantomime.
When I began my comic Mirabilis, it was with the intention of telling the story of a single miraculous year. “Everything will change,” was the logline, because it would. Before the green comet appeared, it was the real historical 1901 – no vampires, no steampunk. Then there’s a year of wonders. One year. When the green comet departs, we’re back to the real world.
The first idea was to tell it all in fifty-two episodes, only they couldn’t have been fifty-two of the 5-page instalments that ran in The DFC. Fifty-two full-length comic books, maybe. Then I could tell the story. But it would still reach an end.
“Unless it’s a huge success,” said the publisher, David Fickling. “Then you’ll have to come up with more story.”
“After the comet goes we’re back to a non-fantastic universe, so there’s nothing more to tell.”
“You can just invent a new reason for there to be fantasy, can’t you?” asked Mr Fickling, flinging up his hands.
“Uh-uh.” I can be pretty stubborn in defence of what I see as creative honesty. “The whole point is that on either side of the year of the comet this is the ordinary world. The story is told. It’s over.”
Of course, having an end in sight doesn’t guarantee the writer won’t jump the shark before they get there, but it does at least let them plan out the gear-shifts of surprises and reversals so that they don’t have to start competing with their own ideas to keep the thing moving. And they can be fairly confident that they’ll never get so bored with the characters that they start having them talk with, as it were, repeated winks to the reader.
Have you been disappointed when a favourite TV show, comic book, or series of novels jumped the shark? How would you have fixed the problem? Don't say, "Get a bigger boat."