Archive for October, 2021

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Just because I previously wrote about something doesn’t mean I’ve magically excised it from my writing. For instance, do I still get mugged by The Spirit of the Staircase (see post) having flashes of what I should’ve said ten minutes after it could ever do me any good? To date, my recent improv classes have excellent incubators for – “Doh! That scene just died and I now know how to fix it!”

I’ll back up a bit out of consideration for my recent postings being next to nonexistent. Needing something, anything to do here in San Diego that is A) creative and B) social in a way that doesn’t depend on my family for going out and doing stuff, I ran away to the circus and joined an improv class. Starting with a Zoom class, I learned the basics and then when there was a tiny break in the grim COVID situation there was the stage. At the moment, I’m working up for the friends and family show that probably is also the final audition for joining the cast of the theater doing the teaching…no pressure there.

I suppose this is where I might go on and on about the value of classes and experiences like this upon my writing and, by extension your writing. Blather about thinking on your feet. Or learning what is and what isn’t a good scene. Just because these concepts might be true doesn’t mean I want to waste more than the two paragraphs used up here. 

For one thing, there hasn’t been the kind of improvement likely to justify such – “Dude, you clearly drank the Kool-Aid.” – praise and that type of verbiage sometimes just sounds stupid saying it out loud. Writing for years; rewriting for the same many years has a way of teaching the basics. Though I can’t deny that learning to do this mental prep work faster will help at some point. I probably could’ve gotten the same skills out of an acting class.

And now for the blood and guts of my weekly self-immolation for which you came. For your consideration, I present to you two scenes one I played in and one I just watched from the front row. And both times I got the brainwave after the instructor either gave his notes or the class had already repaired to the pub next door.

A typical safari operation in Kenya will test the marriage of a pair of newlyweds seemingly on the adventure of a lifetime…

Okay, the Rod Serling narration above didn’t work like I thought it would. Basically, it’s a three-person scene where two people start on stage and the third person either enters the scene as the third character or wipes the scene to things along. The fictional groom is having trouble with the tse-tse flies, the heat and keeping his food down in any order gets the most laughs. The fictional bride reveals under questioning a liking for the safari guide…who enters showing off his guns. Things quickly progressed to a massively kinky three-way.

The scene mostly worked, except for the note from the instructor about the difference between the Yes And of improv and the reality of a scene. Yes And in this case meant the players had to accept the reality of the possible love triangle while on safari, but they don’t have to be cool with it inside the narrative. More than enough people in the groom’s thoroughly cuckolded shoes would get nasty about this revolting turn of events. The three-way is a choice based on the players rapidly deciding what they want when they get the suggestion of safari from the audience. There are other choices.

I wasn’t in this scene. I thought nothing much of it through the rest of the class and even moving to the pub next door for the beer and chicken tenders that seem to glue the class together. We made plans for upcoming shows and discussed shows and recent mud races and, and, and… Then, I went home.

Somewhere between either catching up on the Padres’ dismal play (I’m glad this isn’t a sports blog), watching some movie, solving a crossword puzzle or even stealing time to work on my latest magnum opus it hit me.  Oh, it would’ve been totally cool if [BLEEP!] playing the groom picked a moment where he holds up an imaginary cell phone at the reveal of the affair and – “Darling, despite my barfing every four minutes, I managed to post this of the two of you on PornHub.”

Basically, my brilliant idea was to have the groom blackmail his bride with a revenge porn posting. He’d explain that yes, PornHub is all about consensual porn and that she could fight to have it removed two to three weeks from now and the possibility of hundreds of thousands or millions of page views exposing her for the scheming &*($^ she is or, in return for the appropriate consideration, he can remove it now when there’s only been fifty page views. The three-way is still possible after this move, but the scene work to get there would be balls out fun. 

This brainwave seems to me to fit into things we’ve already been taught about scenes, technical stuff like status, raising stakes, role reversals…all the things I’ve also been taught in regular acting class as well. Except there is a script in acting class. I kept seeing where [BLEEP!] playing the bride could take things. Maybe she gets rubby-rubby on the hubby. Maybe she has her own compromat on the husband (devised just now as I typed). What was it do you think? 

Hell, even [BLEEP!] as the guide has things to play from here. Just because he’s playing a Ranger Rick fella doesn’t mean that he can’t pull out his dueling cell phone and assert that the groom has his own video on PornHub (though my really wicked idea here that the other party in that video is a chimpanzee would absolutely not fly with any audience likely to buy tickets). Or that in-between safari trips, he supplements his income as one of PornHub’s web developers granting access to the passwords that arbitrarily delete any file he wants from the site. All good ideas that struck after I needed them.

Imagine if you will, two ordinary FBI agents discussing the composition of the 10 Most Wanted List…

Okay, the last four students, myself included, did a scene with the crowd suggestion of the FBI and we’d added the rule for a game we play called Blind Line. The audience suggests about two things per player in the scene that get written down and thrown on the stage. At random intervals, players pick up the pieces of paper and say the line written thereon…while justifying the dialogue in the scene.

[BLEEP!] and [BLEEP!] came out discussing that there were only white perpetrators on the 10 Most Wanted. [BLEEP!] later admitted to total brain freeze and trying to save the moment by making the disparity about all white criminals. Still, it was a train wreck waiting for a character coming on later (me) to play up a dinosaur holdover from the very bad old days of the Federal Bureau of Intimidation. 

I’ll be a little cagey here because we do live in a society that likes to misinterpret fictional things as being representative of the real views of the player and then weaponize. Made a mistake doubling down on [BLEEP!]’s rotten grapefruit served up in a moment of panic; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Again, Yes And only applies to having to play that your scene partner launched this rotten tomato, not to doubling down.

Hours after [BLEEP!] and I admitted to each other how much we’d both fucked that one up at the pub, I took the second mugging off The Spirit of the Staircase. And the head slapper here gets even more painful when you consider my own reading history. I actually know just enough about spies and FBI agents to fake it; e.g. I can use dead drop, brush pass and false flag in a sentence and not be laughed at…thank you John Le Carré (no, I didn’t write my grand spy novel, yet, because I haven’t made much effort to find research subjects with whom I could ask to check the master’s homework).

The scene that played out long after it would do me any good started with me playing the supervisor doing what is called a Canadian Cross (cross the stage and broom off the whole train wreck). The best example is probably Graham Chapman of Monty Python wearing his British General’s uniform – “Stop that! Stop that, this instant!”

Anyway, I come on derisively calling the two characters by their last names to establish that I’m the pissed off boss. I make a joke about the 10 Most Wanted List being somewhat like “Assclowns R’ Us, if you’re an assclown you’ll eventually see us.” I then hold up imaginary (it’s improv, no props) paper targets from the other two guys’ most recent range sessions.

I point. “Well, that one almost worked out…looks like you got this imaginary perp in the carotid artery, but all these other shots are just terrible. Four outright misses. This one you took off some hair from his scalp and…” I point again. “And you, you’re worse, your best bullet looks like it took out the suspect’s left ball sack…okay, from the standpoint of acting as natural selection on the gene pool, but crap for the purposes of keeping your jobs. Now, drop what you’re doing and go down to the range to practice!”

Now I’m alone on stage with a possible fourth character that hasn’t come on, yet. I pick up my line from the floor, read it and say – “Jeez, he’s never used the emergency code!” I cross the stage and grab the fourth [BLEEP!] out of the stage wing calling him Oleg.

This part of the scene becomes about an FBI supervisor and SVR Resident who meet in a park after taking a million buses and taxis (tradecraft) to ensure they weren’t followed. The two men have an improper relationship where they’re both juggling the secret love and the toe dance with outright treason discussing spy stuff…like the fact the first two incompetent [BLEEP!]s are not only double agents but triple agents also working for the Chinese. Oleg and I then conspire to burn the untrustworthy and incompetent.None of the above happened because The Spirit of the Staircase threw a serious left hook catching me on the right mandibular joint. So far, I’m great with the time to edit. And, I’m only a bad breakfast burrito away from total disaster…at least on stage.   

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

So, you’re trying to write an epic SF story and you’re stuck on what sort of people to stick on the ship just over there loading photon torpedoes, what now? If you’ve been hired to write in an established franchise, stop reading now there’s a list of possibilities that already exist…use them. And for the rest of us that don’t have the Rolodex to get hired to further the ongoing mission to…there’s no one way and I’m not even sure what follows is mine. Anyway…

Many times, an alien race will get constructed based on the function they serve in the script. Early on the Klingons were intended to stand in for the Soviet Union in the Cold War, so you need folks likely to roll up to the neutral space station as part of an externally enforced “peaceful” settlement and cause trouble. Shooting the Enterprise violates the Organian Cease Fire (it wasn’t a peace treaty, watch The Undiscovered Country set afterwards to see my point) imposed the year earlier, but placing a spy aboard with instructions to poison the Federation’s special wheat supplies so that the nearby colony world would have to turn to the Klingon Empire to get through the next calendar year isn’t quite so well enforced by the Organians.

The writers of The Trouble with Tribbles also needed the Klingons to be good for picking the kind of bar fight that seemingly by union mandate must occur in what is essentially a Port Call/Shore Leave episode. The Klingon First Officer insults Captain Kirk, the Federation and…finally, the Enterprise. Scotty throws a haymaker probably learned from doing various pub crawls in Scotland.

So, if we are to build a race based on the handful of times the Klingons show up, we get deceitful, arrogant, warlike etc. etc. However, the folks that kept watching the show will tell you that the Klingons suddenly shifted slightly with the advent of STNG. Deceitful at all times became “only in service of defeating one’s enemies and at no other times.” What happened?

Gene Roddenberry decided to put a Klingon character, LT. Worf, on the bridge of the new Enterprise to go with “it’s eighty years later, you think maybe the war ended by now?” And given that STNG Season 1 predated Undiscovered Country by a year and a half, you see where the people doing the movie got their marching orders to dramatize the difficult change from Klingons Bad to Klingons Not So Bad. One faction of Klingons when faced with a thinly disguised metaphor for the Chernobyl Disaster sought peace and the other decided to pick a fight aided by rogue Starfleet Officers frightened of a galaxy without the Cold War.

Anyway, back to Worf. He was raised on Earth after being orphaned during a battle between the Klingons and Romulans for which the Federation rendered humanitarian aid. According to Worf, the animus of a warrior race thinking the human led Federation to be weak cowards for espousing cooperation faded over time in favor of – “wow, we can at least trust those Earthlings to keep their word.”

Worf fairly continuously mentioned his understanding of Klingon ethics, gained on Earth because no one kept him from his library card, as being about honor, duty and die serving the society. Ideals that from the outside during times when few Federation citizens had made any Klingon friends, sure look like invade and subjugate everyone around you. People I watched the show with would initially grouse – “Really? They turned the Klingons into a pastiche of Vikings mixed with a lot of Samurai.”

A backhanded way into a common reductionist method for developing a people: take characteristics supposed to have existed in the various cultures and put that on the page. Klingons may feel like the pop culture rehash of what we believe about the Vikings or the Samurai based on having these people in our collective past. But it also sort of explains how the audience suddenly decides they like Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians or whomever to populate their favorite morality play…they’re people so very much like somebody living down the street.

As a shorthand to quickly putting somebody interesting on the other ship across the video link blustering and posturing – “Ah, I can see how lawyers in the future may find flaw in my logic in this case, but you, Captain Kirk, will not be alive to benefit from their deliberations.” – I can support this method with caveats to be discussed below. Pretty much the same caveats built into my shorthand techniques for every other aspect of characters and writing fiction in general…jettison the tricks with increasing experience.

When the Klingons were first conceived, people who pick fights and conquer are going to be thought of as deceitful to go with warlike, aggressive and arrogant, like a pack of freshly trained Marines in a bar. Suddenly, with Worf taking some kind of unspecified red uniform job on the bridge before later getting the yellow shirt job of Security, the deceitful part of the previous show’s depiction has to go.

As far back as the first wave of licensed novels before STNG, Klingons got tagged with deceitful and backstabbing for having a promotion system that lands roughly between the seppuku ceremony of the samurai and what I tend to refer to as the Sith Lord Management Change Ceremony a.k.a. a junior officer kills his superior and takes the better job. The Mirror Universe also devised these ethics.

Then Worf is the good guy. The subtle shift in the cultural ethos becomes “we are so dedicated to dying in service to our people that an honorable failure among Klingons welcomes being killed for the betterment of our people.” And there are review procedures to curb the activities of the purely ambitious. We hope…

The exaggerate human traits method of alien design helps a lot with the audience bonding with Worf, Kang, Kor, Koloth and General Martok. Take it too far and the story suddenly takes on weird characteristics that sit just under the surface and can stink up the joint. One is to assume that because the in-narrative version of human culture is as equally as broad as the real culture drawn upon to create Klingons, Centauri, Narn, Romulans that the in-narrative humans will succeed because of having more tricks in their bags. 

Up to a point, this assumption can be fun to pull out explaining why Commander Riker did so well on an exchange tour with the Klingons (that and Starfleet’s SERE training that helps one keep a straight face eating Gahk because he’s already eaten grasshoppers in a desert). But there is a point where assuming that the in-narrative humans always win the inter-species diplomacy because human culture is thousands of cultures still trying to figure out how to share the same planet is just bad writing…usually someone laid it on six meters deep without thought for the exceptions that prove the rule. 

To that end the writers periodically foxed us a little bit with the Klingons on several occasions showing us sides of the species we hadn’t seen before. Canny Klingon captains proudly declare – “We have no need of assistance hating humans, but only a fool fights in a burning house! Begone!” – when they need to drive out an energy being feeding on the built-in animus between the races. When they need to bust out some legal trickery to burn Captain Kirk as part of the greater conspiracy, we see Klingon lawyers played by Christopher Plummer – “Don’t wait for the translation!” And of course, my favorite out-of-archetype Klingon is the Singing Chef…

On Star Trek: DS-9, a small almost kiosk-sized Klingon eatery opened up on the Promenade. As directed by the culturally accepted Klingon cookbooks, the Gahk wiggles and the replicated targ almost convinces the taster of having squealed just a few minutes ago (I did mention the part about nearly kiosk-sized, there really isn’t space for live targ, unless the dude has other spaces on the station we didn’t see). Lastly, this worthy gentleman busts out the highpoints from the Klingon opera canon in what I think was a decent baritone all in the service of flirting with Jadzia Dax.

Other Klingons sang these songs, usually celebrating great victories or even ones made great by exaggeration with tankards of blood wine (a decent off-brand merlot in the ken of the franchise’s relentless marketing) in hand. The Chef just wanted to get laid with a worthy woman whose actions made her almost a Klingon woman. Alas, the lady preferred Worf in later seasons, but the gent kept singing incurring the annoyance of General Martok commenting on the end of Klingon civilization as they knew it.

Of course, the existence of this chef doesn’t have to necessarily represent the end of all things Klingon. If we go back to Obi-Wan’s semi-evasive observation that begins with – “from a certain point of view” – a good chef is essential to the functioning of the army. He who has the knack of the great barbecue sauce and leaving the targ on the grill just long enough to avoid drying it out gives aid and comfort to his fellows who then gird up to slaughter tribbles with great celerity. Thus, he shall live and die advancing his society and be found flipping targ steaks upon his invitation to Stovokor. Or perhaps Martok is right and the shame of – “Gentlemen, now abed on Qo’noS (Kronos) shall hold their manhoods accursed in the presence of one of my brothers…” – has lost its sting for non-warriors and something needs to be done.

Regardless, the Singing Chef exists as a point of debate among fans and as an easy trick for the writer to expand beyond the limitations of the archetypes used to create the people from whom he springs. Here’s hoping your Klingon Singing Chef works as well…