Scribbler’s Saga #7 – Dragonflight (Coverage)

Posted: March 4, 2016 in Uncategorized

Analyst: G.N. Jacobs © 2016

Title: Dragonflight

Written by: Anne McCaffrey

Format: Book____X Screenplay_____ Play_____ Article_____ Movie_____ Verbal Pitch_____ Short Story_________________

Grade:   Recommend___X Maybe/Rewrite_____ Pass_____

Logline: A young woman survives the murder of her family and uses her strong telepathy skills to plot revenge using an influential dragon rider as her tool; when she succeeds she is invited to vie for the position of rider upon the soon to hatch dragon queen.

Summary:

The book begins with an expository prologue about how and why the human colonists of Pern have formed an imperfect symbiosis with the telepathic dragons found on the planet. Dragons exist to play a version of Missile Command where guided by their human riders they use their fire to burn the dreaded Thread, extra-planetary ribbons of life killing spores. The Threadfall occurs on predictable cycles based on the orbital mechanics of the star system, in some centuries this occurs every few decades followed by long intervals that can last up to four hundred years. It is the end of a long interval and the people of Pern have forgotten why they need dragons and their riders. The Lords of the various defensible settlements have begun to resent the tithing established by long custom that supports dragons and the riders. Worse they have begun to conquer other settlements despite long tradition against warfare…

Lessa of Ruatha, a recently conquered settlement in the High Reaches section of Pern, resists the conqueror Fax. She uses her considerable telepathy to hide as a kitchen drudge and disrupt the economic output of her city to drive out the invader. She largely succeeds for several years getting Fax to replace several city managers in a style of which the Queen of Hearts would approve – “Off with their heads!”

Into this brewing storm, F’lar and the six other bonded dragon-rider pairs in his command fly into Fax’s territory. The dragon men search for special women who might have the talent to ride the as yet unhatched dragon queen, the only reproductive female dragon in a dragon lair. F’Lar senses a lot of unrestrained power in the Hold of Ruatha. Lessa uses her arts to set in motion a duel between F’lar. However, Fax has included in his entourage his pregnant wife, Lady Gemma. The birth of Fax’s son occurring simultaneously to F’lar’s successful duel with Fax contrives to send Lessa off to the dragon Weyr to vie with other ladies for the honor of riding Rathom, the unhatched queen egg.

Thus begins an exploration of the telepathic dragon-rider bond as Lessa and Rathom have a soulmate reaction from the minute the dragon queen hatches. The dragons and their riders are few in number after centuries of neglect due to no recent Threadfalls. F’lar takes Lessa to his bed because tradition says that the rider of the bronze dragon that mates the queen takes the Weyrwoman. It is against the backdrop of this fractious relationship that F’lar and Lessa must learn the secrets buried in the ancient records of the dragon riders to marshal enough dragons and riders to defend Pern against the next Threadfall…

Evaluation:

To date, I’ve never had a harder positive “somebody please buy this franchise” commentary to write. Usually, it’s just a matter of gushingly relating the scene or scenes that tipped me over into wanting to see a book become a movie. And the first entry in Anne McCaffrey’s long running Dragonriders of Pern series does have the highly visual moments that someone armed with the sales numbers of quite a few franchises that feature dragons will want to buy. But, if Dragonflight didn’t kick off a well-known franchise that might become the next Game of Thrones I’m not sure I would’ve recommended this book.

The core of the book, apart from the usage of dragons to fly around the skies of Pern and vaporize the dreaded Thread in mid-air (decades before the invention of the Space Invaders, Centipede, Galaxian, Galaga and Missile Command video games), concerns the budding relationship between Lessa and F’lar that due to the telepathic connection between a rider and his or her dragon happens in parallel to the dragons’ mating. The problem (likely to get beaten out of the movie script by the very expensive screenwriter assigned) is that the relationship itself didn’t really grab me the way good cinematic relationships should.

The relationship between the humans fell very quickly into a bare bones pro forma mini Battle of the Sexes where the man tries to keep the woman out of danger and the woman, like Lucy Ricardo, wants her equal time in Ricky’s show. At least when Billy Jean King smeared Bobby Riggs all across the tennis court, there was some halfway interesting tennis to look at (for a few minutes maybe). Yes, Ms. McCaffrey did play fair with why that ingrained sexism might develop in that the Dragonriders only had one queen dragon and you can’t use up the last one in just any battle. But, the writing of this relationship didn’t rise up very well.

Science fiction fans all over who want to see good properties get made into movies are probably warming up the hate mail for my temerity in thinking that a Hugo-winning book is anything less than perfect. But, it’s my opinion that awards in science fiction are more likely given out because of a brilliant concept like dragons and their human riders fly around the skies of a faraway planet preventing ecological disaster from space and that the human relationship in the foreground that could theoretically work against that goal might be overlooked.

However like many books in the amorphous category of In Between, Dragonflight has the seeds of a self-fix, ready when a screenwriter warms up his or her smoking word processor. This becomes very important when looking at the production status of the series (as of 2014 Warner Brothers has the franchise and has paid someone to write the first installment). What follows are my humble suggestions for using what Ms. McCaffrey already has on the page for making the movie great…

One way to distract from a blah relationship in an otherwise winning franchise is to inject external dramatic issues that on the page were hinted at and in one case resolved way too early. My first suggestion in this category: don’t kill off the tyrant conquering settlements too soon.

Killing off the tyrant, Fax, at the turn into the second act instead of having him linger as a possible distraction/hindrance to the drive to unify the various settlements of Pern really seemed like an inefficient use of dramatic story beats. Fax drumming up anti-support against the riders based on the fact that there hasn’t been a Threadfall for an unusually long time (copiously noted as possible in the various astronomical records of Pern) sounds like it could’ve been used to keep me on the edge of my seat. It helps to have a they could fail element to a story.

Fax could also have served to draw out the qualities of F’lar and Lessa well into the late second act. If the heroes have an uninformed ambitious foe that opposes them, imagine the possibilities if, say, F’lar decides to assassinate Fax for being too troublesome. Does F’lar relent from the killing because deep down he doesn’t kill people in cold blood? Does Fax see the light and join the program at the last minute because a Hold Lord doesn’t get to be lord if everybody’s dead?

Either of these solutions would make the otherwise prosaic and boring relationship between F’lar and Lessa seem deeper and more dramatically interesting. Something for the screenwriter to work on (we hope).

Another suggestion might be to simply write a real fractious relationship that matters due to the fact that if F’lar and Lessa can’t work it out, Pern basically dies. In the book, Lessa is aware of F’lar catting around with another of the candidates for being the dragon-queen’s rider. F’lar justifies this based on Lessa being very young and inexperienced can’t articulate her desires that he wishes to be honorable and not impose himself on a woman he cares for deeply.

The solution to this triangle proved brilliant: send the rival off with the very next queen egg to the southern continent to get reinforcements ready when Thread falls again. However, punching up the middle parts of the romantic dilemma with anything, even the cheap theatrics of thrown plates and a lot of yelling might give the reader/viewer the sense of real stakes. I hope the screenwriter sees this in time before real production money is put up in escrow.

Part of why I make these suggestions to bulk up the relationship of the two leads is that this book and franchise shows the pitfall with having a mindless antagonist force. Thread is a fascinating concept. However, once the various characters use their primitive astronomical tools to discover the orbital mechanics governing Threadfall the drama in the book is already over. The reader only stays with the story to see the results of the war preparations. I’m hoping for more when I finally see Dragonflight as a movie.

Otherwise, hack screenwriters will feel tempted to go really far afield to liven up a story with amazing Hugo-winning world building that has a boring story in the foreground. In the hands of these mythical hacks, Thread could be intelligent. Imagine Thread changing tactics in the middle of the bombardment? Or perhaps one of these intoxicated screenwriters might steal from the work of Fred Saberhagen and create a Berserker-style force of evil robots or starfaring aliens who wish to kill off the humans on Pern to facilitate conquest?

Have no fear, I do not actually advocate these last two suggestions. They clearly go into the category of being so far completely outside of what Anne McCaffrey and her continuation author, son Todd McCaffrey, intended for the franchise. I might reject any hate mail for saying that Dragonflight is imperfect because story threads weren’t fully realized on the page, but adding in evil robots would, in this case, be completely indefensible. My earlier suggestions have the virtue of being concepts that are already suggested on the page and just need shaping and sculpting to bring out. A huge difference.

I have always liked to make sure that I highlight something unreservedly good about the property under review. Dragonflight has it in spades what with the CGI visuals of dragons flying around playing Missile Command to save the planet of Pern. It is in those visuals that I recommend this book while expressing my hope that a screenwriter can make the movie be about more than just dragons flying around burning things.

Additionally, I did like the tricksy-tricksy usage of time travel defining the third act that can’t be talked about until after we all see the movie. It’s the ending and I don’t give away endings.

My last suggestion: I’m not sure that I see the franchise as a series of movies, but rather a TV series for HBO or Showtime. I think my go to for any property that has as much narrative built in over a nearly five decade publishing run like Pern is premium TV. However, the story analyst doesn’t always get what he wants.

So to sum up, we have a brilliant concept with a lot of thought given to the supporting science of ecological niches. We have a presently boring relationship that hints at the real drama possible in this future movie if the screenwriter feels brave enough to go there. We also have a view of dragons to provide a good counterpoint to Smaug in The Hobbit. Thus, I will tentatively RECOMMEND this book and the franchise of the Dragonriders of Pern, based on making Lessa and F’lar interesting to watch as a couple.

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