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© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! Imagine reading Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the FirstBEFORE seeing the movie by George Lucas! I guess that covers the pull quote for this review. Anyway, I like Shakespeare and I like Star Wars, even the much-derided Episode One (well…in the sense of enjoying going to the dentist after the cleaning ends). Obviously, I’m all over the Shakespearean homage.

Truthfully, the play’s the play and nothing substantive changes (Mr. Doescher’s readers might get nasty in tragic ways if the plot changes…like that time I spent six months re-writing a three-hour version of The Return of the Jedi. Never mind). I have and will continue to savage the actual movie well into the future (see post). What I really like about this version that trades on the tropes and limitations of the Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare and Marlowe dove in head first is how the union-mandated iambic pentameter, asides, soliloquies and verbal description of the action serves to make it very clear that perhaps we get to blame the movie a little bit more on decisions made after the script was locked.

The reader upon being told that a Shakespeare homage edition was contemplated might chuckle a little bit and ask many relevant questions.

How does the stage director depict the pod-race that eats up ten minutes in an otherwise lackluster movie that seems to hang its hat on the scene?

People run in and out reporting to Qui-Gon Jinn the results of the latest lap, while the pod racers occasionally run through in the foreground inside cardboard pods much like the hobby horses last seen in Monty Python’s: The Holy Grail.The Shakespearean battle scene that I thought it most reminded me of was Bosworth Field from Richard III (“Rescue, My Lord, Rescue!”), but there are other possibilities…Shakespeare liked him his battles and frequently did the same things over and over.

There’s a lot of people communicating across Galactic distances in holographic beams, so how do handle that, Buster?  

Guys, spotlights. A modern stage just flips the switch and there you are. If by some highly inexplicable time travel accident this script lands on Shakespeare’s desk and he, as was accused in movies like Anonymous, appropriates it as his own, the stagehands of the day had lanterns, mirrors and such. People can work it out.

Anyway, as I read the play, I couldn’t help but enjoy it far more than the movie that spawned it. Mostly, it was because Mr. Doescher dove in head first with the Jar-Jar Binks problem. In the movie, this amphibian Falstaff archetype either really pissed off the viewer as being too forced acting as the comedy relief. Too over the top with a mostly Jamaican (we think) patois that sparked some to go nuts trying to find hidden racial insensitivities in Star Wars. Or for the younger viewers for whom George Lucas always said the series was the primary audience, Jar-Jar was greater than sliced bread because kids tend to respond to people tripping over themselves to get a laugh.

 Doescher gives Jar-Jar one hell of a raison d’etre, to unify the Gungans and human Naboo in a vision of a shared planet that rises to meet all challenges together. Thus, he speaks the best possible rendition of his movie dialogue translated into iambic pentameter and then gives an aside to the audience delivered in what in the Star Wars galaxy is the local equivalent of Received Pronunciation (also in iambic pentameter). Jar-Jar doing things intentionally and telling the audience why goes a long way towards feeling better about the character.

Another character that gets a small amount of interesting of asides is Artoo. We just have to take it on trust that Threepio isn’t intentionally mistranslating our favorite astro-mech droid. In the play, Artoo reveals he might be the smartest character in the room sussing out Jar-Jar. Everybody else just talks over and around our least favorite Frog Clown.

All through the play, the dialogue plays out clever with a capital C. There are references to other Shakespeare lines and more importantly references to dialogue the actors played in other movies. Basically, Mr. Doescher has used his library card well.

Truthfully, I missed many of the promised Samuel L. Jackson-isms probably because I don’t know, brain freeze (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). However, I didn’t fail to miss some biggies posted thirty feet tall in neon. Qui-Gon Jinn picks the last fight (in the movie set to “Duel of the Fates”) with Darth Maul dropping in extra dialogue much like Kung Fu movie fighters pointing out the people with whom they’re going to mop the floor. 

Pay attention, just before the saber merge Qui-Gon says the words “I have skills.” If we could only have a daughter for the Jedi master to rescue from traffickers (and perhaps a more forgiving screenwriter), you think maybe he’d survive this one. And when Maul skewers the Jedi, the exit line is “et tu, Sith.” Perhaps not as rhyming as “et tu, Brute,” but I’ll take it.

This play, even starting from the hardest Star Wars movie to watch, is simply excellent fun for people who enjoy both Shakespeare and The Galaxy Far, Far Away and Long Ago. Now to see if Disney actually releases it onto the stage…    

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

More than twenty later, this film still resonates as the Star Wars movie most of us hated when we saw it. I myself am not immune to such passions. In that time, there has also been backlash to the original backlash in favor of the movie, but other than what I will list below that kinda almost worked…it’s still the movie that dragged the rest of the Fall of Anakin Skywalker trilogy into [BEEP!].

The plot. Political turmoil between the Trade Federation (I swear they made a dig upon Star Trek here), the rest of the galaxy represented by the Galactic Senate and the small, peaceful and lush planet of Naboo results in a blockade of said nice planet. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), get sent on the sly to muscle a settlement, but find dark and nefarious forces at work that reveal the Trade Federation more interested in taking over temperate, green and comfortable to live on planets.

In the running around on Naboo’s surface said Jedi make friends with a Gungan (an amphibian humanoid species sharing the planet with the human Naboo society). They rescue the elected Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) escaping in a damaged ship landing for repairs on Tatooine where we meet nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), presently a slave born under strange circumstances. There’s a lot of gambling and doubling down between Qui-Gon and the blue Toydarian Watto that leads to a pod race that provides the parts to repair the ship and free Anakin.

We move to the galactic capitol where the Queen pleads for redress with Naboo’s representative, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), at her side. The Senate being used as a chew toy by the as yet hidden Sith Lords ends up telling the Naboo to drop dead as “we really should send another blue-ribbon investigating committee.” The Queen calls for a vote of No Confidence that results in the election of Senator Palpatine as the new Chancellor and then goes home to lead the big battle with her new Gungan allies to free Naboo, a battle where Anakin foreshadows his son, Luke, blowing up the Death Star twenty-three years later, by blowing up the droid control ship with a proton torpedo shot to a conveniently exposed reactor.

The people who have made hating on Menace and the rest of Episodes 1-3 into a cottage industry focus most of their geek wrath around two tentpoles for their scorn, derision and slight regard: Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and baby Anakin. There are other reasons to feel disappointed, some that will be listed here. There are also points of logic that conversely suggest lighten up, a failing common to many Star Wars fans.

Most of my fellow nerds will comment in the Anakin section of the bashing session that a nine-year-old protagonist makes the rest of the movie difficult to believe even before we get to the technical part about did Mr. Lloyd successfully do his job? The rest of the characters are pretty much acting like adults, even the fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala (possibly a thematic callback to our real history where teenaged monarchs frequently kicked ass and took names because teenagers weren’t actually considered children until about a hundred years ago). 

The nine-year-old boy with the great skill at the flight controls wins the pod race, but is then shunted into a spare Naboo cockpit for the space battle making his almost accidental entry into the furball almost as if Anakin as an archetype vies with Jar-Jar for being the Accidental Fool…someone Inspector Clouseau would very much understand. I think a lot of the people commenting how weird Anakin played out on screen would eventually land on – “guys, you can’t have it both ways, either Anakin is this great pilot that makes a conscious decision to blow up the Trade Federation’s Battle-Donut that no one even thinks about ordering to stay out of the way in the spare space fighter, or he’s the young waif to whom things happen accidentally.” How much danger can you put a nine-year-old protagonist in anyway? I have yet to discover that formula myself and thus avoid writing YA novels as if I might catch the measles.

And twenty plus years later just say the name Jar-Jar Binks. You can say it straight or with the growly delivery of that old guy in The Graduate urging for a fulfilling career in Plastics; you’ll get the same result from everybody older than the age of nine at the time the movie originally dropped. 

Variations of – “Ugh! Who told George Lucas that this clutzy, tries too hard at comedic relief and eats up too much screen time at the expense of what passes for the main plot was a good idea? And that’s before we get all nasty about his forced mostly Jamaican patois in a movie where we’re also choosing to be angry that the primary villains who aren’t Sith all speak like Asian villains from a Fu Manchu movie.” Kids who were in the target audience at the time who are now twenty-ish swear Jar-Jar is the funniest thing ever. I was thirty. Jar-Jar bombed about like taking out Rotterdam.

There is so much more to bash about the movie and I’ve heard them all at the counter of various comic book stores, at least for the first few years until there wasn’t anything new to be had raking this one over the coals. Didn’t like Padme’s dresses. Hated the stilted dialogue almost completely devoid of contractions. Goes back and forth between thinking the pod race sequence the only thing that keeps the first half of the movie moving or perhaps it was a cheap stunt to trick the audience into enjoying the dead air in the story.

I promised you, Dear Reader, that there are some good and interesting things about The Phantom Menace. Here are a few…

The effects and music. Industrial Light and Magic always goes whole hog for a Star Wars movie, the franchise that willed their organization into being. We may get nasty about – “Really, Tatooine again!” – but the sand looks like it always does…gorgeous.

This time around when composer John Williams set his pencil to paper the highlight ended up being “Duel of the Fates.” Set under the big lightsaber rumble on Naboo we get a classic piece of acrobatic cinema. Who cares that, yet again, a Jedi has to lose someone and get angry to win the fight…despite strict dogma against getting angry?

The actors playing the Jedi, McGregor and Neeson, showed why they’ve torn up Hollywood…in other movies. It is alleged that with nothing on the page to play when having dinner at Shimi Skywalker’s (Pernilla August) humble house, that Mr. Neeson starts creating heat between the Jedi Master and analogue for the Virgin Mary. Just a light hint of maybe…

Ewan McGregor infuses his young Obi-Wan Kenobi with an infectious smile running interference for a brash character that still has many years ahead to his worst day, turning his best friend Anakin Skywalker into a Benihana entrée. Wait, good acting in a Star Wars movie? It happens.

The other fascinating aspect of this film that carries through the whole early trilogy is the genius move of establishing Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious as owning both sides of the emergency that brings him to power. In a movie where the fans have already read ahead, there is an official attempt to separate the two characters that we don’t see Sidious take off his robe to become Palpatine. However, there’s no actual attempt to hide this with, say, Batman lowering his voice and growling.

Owning both sides of the war struck me personally at the time I first saw the movie. It had to do with Evil Stepdad 2.0 who was a conspiracy theorist for whom the true masters of the universe were alleged to own both sides of all conflicts because you always win if you’re both the Good Guys and the Space Nazis at the same time. He kept on and on about this creating a hugely integrated world view that largely predated QAnon. And then to see this concept onscreen in a Star Wars movie…

However, while we’re on the subject of Galactic politics, whatever cool and interesting we got from Palpatine owning the whole war making the results irrelevant, we gave back in the depiction of the Neimodians of the Trade Federation. For the life of me, applying any concept of the why of War whether from Sun Tzu or von Clauswitz I couldn’t figure out why the Trade Federation escalated their blockade over being taxed too high into an invasion…other than someone having read Syd Field and arbitrarily deciding – “we need an invasion to let the rest of the movie make sense.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist one last dig at a movie that pretty much belly flopped from the Ten-Meter platform at the Olympics… 

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Many writers talk about the critical voice in the heads and then say something along the lines of “shout that little bastard down and keep writing.” When the message naturally leads to an excuse not to write, I agree. Sometimes, the little guy has real things to say and maybe we should listen. Maybe it’s really a different voice with the same voiceprint?

Several weeks ago, I’d put the day’s words for the night and still had enough in the tank to randomly cast about for whatever might be next and give it a few hours of pre-writing development (too many syllables for think shit up). Somewhere in this a stray thought about famous Italian luthier, Stradarvari of Cremona (it’s not that stray a thought, there is a dormant music column on this blog) lands. This typically leads to similar thoughts about Amati of Cremona. 

Imagining the competition between these two rival luthiers (stringed instrument maker, including more recently guitars) in the same city leads to “ooh, what if a girl named Amati fell for a boy named Stradavari…the Romeo & Juliet of expensive violins!” And this is where the critical voice gets busy throwing hard elbows, I pitched the story wrong even to myself.

Busting out Romeo and Juliet implies a certain kind of tragic story of freshly minted Renaissance teenagers who when faced with the crushing weight of their respective families’ mutual animosities choose suicide to preserve their love. Nearly every commentator in the more than four hundred years of the play has continuously asserted that the two leads have to be teenagers (Romeo being 14 at most and Juliet maybe 13) in order to answer the question – “who commits suicide when they can’t have their way romantically?”

The play was written in the late 16th Century and set in 15th Century Italy both eras in which no one had much of proper medicine, understanding of juvenile psychology or hope that more than half of all children would survive to adulthood. Teenage marriages, especially for women, happened frequently in order for her to get started on her eight or more pregnancies. Careful reading of various profiles of historical ladies on Wikipedia seems to show that enough of the time the responsible parents arranging these matches would hold the girls back a couple years until their later teen years. 

The people living then might not have understood adolescence as we do now, but they did get the part about the immediate hit of puberty being good for stormy domestic relations and slammed doors. Certainly, they knew that the older the newlyweds were at the beginning of that marriage the more likely the response to not landing on the lover they wanted would be to, in this wisdom from The Kings Speech – “can’t they just carry on privately?” The sane approach to disappointing arranged marriages. Thus, Romeo and Juliet are in their early teens where they can only see their love being everything and die for it.

The above doesn’t really fully explain why setting this type of four-hanky tragedy among the luthiers of Cremona, just doesn’t work. It boils down to violin makers being the wrong sort of occupation to use the Romeo & Juliet outline. They were essentially well compensated craftsmen of the Upper Middle Class, not the lords and ladies of the original play with the legal right to and social obligation to carry swords and duel. More than a few people have also commented that the Montagues and Capulets spent so much time brawling in the streets that the two factions weren’t much different than street gangs with money. This makes the update to street gangs without money for West Side Story an easy leap.

People named Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari could get caught up in the rumbles of two powerful wealthy families roiling the streets if you assume that feuding Noble Family A patronizes Amati and feuding Noble Family B patronizes Stradavari. Neither luthier operation would sell to the rival family to keep and make the peace, or they would wink and nod moving the product out the back door. None of this leads to stabbing each other on the streets…especially since the cynical reasons for pitching a musically themed version of Romeo & Juliet is to close the square for Great Soundtrack built-in what with at least three pieces titled Dueling Violins.

Yes, the pride in one’s own product versus those other guys would lead to conflict but nothing lethal. You could see the two master craftsmen throwing a fist or two and then arranging the concert. Maybe there’s an affair between the adults but now we’re already too far from the Shakespeare play. There’s one slight possibility given my three minutes looking it up on Wikipedia, the third Amati trained the first Guarneri and the first Stradavari…so two apprentices throwing down to take over the old master’s business. Still not the Shakespeare play.

It matters because the middle of the play requires Romeo to get into a big fight with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, that results in a Capulet death. Dramatists and other writers have always depended on having the characters’ own decisions cause their grief. Romeo shrugs off various insults because – “dude, I just married your cousin.” His good friend, Mercutio, takes the gauntlet because – “really, that’s the last straw!” – and then dies making Romeo too angry to stop himself. Doing these scenes with people that don’t have the easy access to the steel can be done…at the expense of too many pages used up on expository backstory.

So, when my critical voice saw this immediately and yelled at me to stop pitching it as anything like the Shakespeare play, what did I actually think up? A sitcom in most cases. A sexy romantic movie with an awesome soundtrack in a few other cases. And if I really need it to be a tragedy, I’ll just give Mrs. Stradavari-Guarneri breast cancer and we’re done.

Why is it potentially a sitcom? The property trades on the comedic conflict of the two sets of in-laws figuring it out when they come over to the kids’ house for Sunday dinner. Barbs from Master Guarneri that Master Stradavari never did his frets correctly leading to – “Papa, no business tonight please!” And then there’s a violin duel.

What sitcoms are the closest? Mostly I was thinking Dharma and Greg, where a hippie girl lands on an uptight boy attorney leading to interesting family dinners. But you can see aspects of many sitcoms, like if Darren Stevens had his parents visit more than a couple episodes of Bewitched

For the sexy drama version, now we’re cooking with gas. Stormy passionate women (or men, it’s the 21st Century, gender-switching will be attempted and have the same chances of working with an audience) raising their voices to get exactly what they want. Doors slamming with almost the regularity of the average farce. Lots of kissy-kissy scenes backlit at sunset while on picnic among the field of pretty flowers. Followed by a determination to build the best violin ever in order to have something that plays up to the abilities of this tempestuous partner who combines the talents of Isaac Stern and Jimi Hendrix. Okay, there have been times when perhaps I’ve watched too many Cinemax movies from the out-and-out Skin-Max era (not really there aren’t any angry housewives played by former Playmates who scheme to kill their overbearing husbands and there is too much good music).

On second thought, I’m an SF and Fantasy writer. Let’s take the sexy drama version and really jump down the rabbit hole with both feet. The passionate luthier couple must make the violin that the Devil might want to swipe on his way to Georgia (probably the baggage handlers destroyed his original instrument) and play up to the quality of the instrument in order to save the world from the Evil Counterpoint. Or the average trance created by misusing the average love potion or…even our excellent chance of rehashing a work lovingly referred to as Orpheus 5.0 (Wrinkle in Time being Orpheus 3.5, just sayin’). We’ll still need the hot and steamy…

None of which exactly pitches as Romeo & Juliet Set Among Anything or Meet Tony the Tiger. And that was my original point; the archetypes we sometimes fall back on to explain our work when we only have 30 seconds to get past a gatekeeper aren’t always an exact fit. But there typically is an actual story lurking in the collective unconscious that does fit what’s on the page, the problem is that this hypothetical story archetype is itself derivative of the main archetype that only fits as well as that extra pair of shoes in the back of the closet. Naturally, this story is usually almost as unknown as yours. Mileage always varies.Anyway, I appreciate your forbearance as I give a little insight into the voices in my head fully grokking the double entendre that a writer in Work it Out on Paper Mode is only a bad breakfast burrito away from needing medical intervention. Knock on wood at the absence of getting caught. And…as always, you’re invited to write your own stories.    

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

“It’s a simple game, really. We run, hit and throw.” – thus sayeth a fictional baseball manager in Bull Durham and perhaps more than few real managers distressed by a complete lack of fundamentals witnessing the train wreck of the local version of the Mudville Nine or even the Bears…yeah, those Bears. The saying also unintentionally touches on a truth that there are perhaps two handfuls of discrete athletic skills that make up the building blocks of all the sports we played in the past or will invent in the future (writers take note). To be more inclusive that pissed off manager might include…Run. Hit. Throw. Catch. Dodge/hop. Strike. Jump. Run into. Grapple. Aim. And Climb. Covers most of them, I think. Sounds sooo very simple…

If this assertion holds true then I think I’ve just explained why most new at the time sports can be evaluated in reductionist terms – “Oh right, I see what those Yanks did taking the eleven-man version of Rugby, added a rigid distance versus attempts requirement, allowed offensive players to run into defenders who don’t have the ball and about two decades later either took a marketing survey about exciting high scoring games or simply gave up enforcing the ban on the forward pass!” We Americans call this holy game Football, despite the rest of the world making a credible case that the other eleven-man game where more kicking takes place should have the name.

FYI, to see Football’s roots in Rugby, open up the two sports’ Wikipedia pages side by side and look at the rules. Football’s residual kicking rules (PATs, field goals, punting and kickoffs) all have direct antecedents on the Rugby pitch. In the early days, you could drop the ball to the grass and attempt a drop kick field goal from anywhere on the field, another direct lift from Rugby. I went looking in the rules to see if this play that hadn’t been seen in at least eighty years had been banned by any of the leagues…the rule still stands. You don’t need to ban something made extremely difficult when you optimize your ball for the forward pass instead of the regular ground game.

You see so many elements that recur across the many sports due to a variety of reasons. When Naismith invented Basketball, players couldn’t dribble as they do now. There is some surviving film showing teams playing this way, catching the passed ball, stopping and either shooting or passing to the next player. Obviously, some fans must’ve conducted experiments and decided they liked the thought of being able to dribble, head fake and drive the lane better. Bouncing the ball on the floor was likely a compromise with the folks reminding the rest that the old rules were designed to avoid picking up the ball and running with it, important because Hoops is supposed to be a non-contact game.

The stop and must pass rule has since become a feature of the otherwise Football inspired Ultimate. Go long. Get clear. Catch the disk. Stop. Throw to the next player running ahead from his place behind. Rinse. Repeat. I’m guessing for the same reasons as why we didn’t used to dribble on the court, running with the Frisbee encourages tackling (run into & grapple) and blocking (pure run into). Pads to keep players safe probably would get in the way of a fun Frisbee game without too much contact to it (not counting going up for the interception).

As writers we have two main choices, set our sports narratives in the real world or make up a new game. I’ve done both depending on my intent. 

I have arbitrarily dropped the, at the time, fictional Los Angeles starting offense into a parallel world where Rome resisted Christianity long enough to develop modern technology, much like the classic Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses.” Pretty much my elevator pitch went like this – “football players v. gladiators.” Since it was a life or death game, the gladiators lining up over the ball got to keep their knives…not exactly Football as we know it.

I have also realized that the sports my faraway invented realities would develop would be broadly similar to real world sports, but would face play testing decisions that take things in slightly different directions. My funniest effort here is Goven-Hoka. Not very intent on spending too much time inventing a sport down to the nittiest and grittiest rules and penalties. My thought process really was just – “take Football and Soccer, have the referee get bored and blow a whistle to change between rules. Go get lunch.”

A side of eleven stalwart players kicks the ball up to the next player downfield and then the whistle, suddenly the ball handler picks up the ball and advances it under the arm…until the ref arbitrarily blows the whistle at which time the ball must hit the grass again. Believe me, I’m not stupid, I know exactly what this rule does to both games and their players. 

With the exception of the targets carrying the ball, every other player on the football field maximizes conditioning to survive Run Into, which can impede conditioning for other types of running. Conversely, few soccer players ever grow as large as America grows its football players so they’re smaller, faster and in better shape. Once puberty kicks in after the recreational youth leagues, there is very little overlap between Football and Soccer for players playing both sports…pretty much the only guys who played both were the placekicker and a couple guys who were receivers.

Yes, I’m also aware that I created a logical contradiction concerning the game’s equipment that I pretty much punted. A football has the pointy ends to aid flight for the forward pass. A soccer ball is round to aid kicking from the grass. The rugby ball splits the difference to assist in carrying and pitching it, but also to not get in the way of the drop kick goal. Goven-Hoka probably uses a rugby ball, but I didn’t think that far ahead other than I thought it would be funny.

Like anything else in writing fiction, the sports we invent come from all kinds of sources. More recently, I moved to a new house in San Diego. In the real world I didn’t take most of my old crap with me and farmed out the heavy lifting for what I did to guys with trucks and dollies, but still it was stressful enough that suddenly I’m getting ideas…

Couch drag obstacle courses, which for people likely to shop at IKEA first (Me until this move) and also unlikely to hire movers could be a mixed-doubles event. The event allows for the refs to arbitrarily move the boxes holding the breakable glass kitchenware directly into the hallway through which the couch must drag. Lose points for broken stuff. Of course, I’m thinking more of how the event evolves with a budget, say, under the cruel tutelage of those guys that do the Battlebots arenas (who came up with that screw thingy on the far wall?). 

Spring operated Joker-style boxing gloves coming out from the walls. The ref arbitrarily shifts the cant of the floor. Smoke pots. Neutral field players whapping at the couch draggers with martial arts kicking pads from odd angles in the closets.

Of course, if we decided to make sports out of moving, redecorating and remodeling, we’ll actually have to add more events, like Gymnastics, Modern Pentathlon or Decathlon. Furniture Drag, yep. Arguing Over Placing the TV Stand and/or Who Tracked Dirt on the Floor (more of a literary contest like the Dozens, I suppose, or let it go bloody). Auto Race to Home Improvement Store For The One Thing You Forgot The Last Time. And, of course the penultimate event, Swinging Wrecking Tools to Take Down That Wall That Pisses Me Off.

Yeah, that was a weird couple of months, where the only new sporting event I could come up with clearly steals from American Ninja WarriorBattlebots and some scary-ass dystopian whatever that doesn’t even have a movie (Bull@#%t Rollerball!). Oh, and the highlight reel has to be set to that brass-heavy soundtrack from NFL Films (how you used to spend Saturday after the cartoons), just saying.

Anyway, sports are a small integral part of the worlds we create/borrow when we write. Some will set a knifing in the men’s room at SoFi Stadium and just use the sports we already have. Others will set the same knifing at the same stadium a hundred years from now where Football will have even more Bread & Circuses to it and will have evolved (betting the PAT goes first). Others will do the mix and match game trying to get something that might actually arise on the faraway realm of Braetheton. Some will convert the ordinary into an extraordinary new sport. Have fun…           

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Joe Michael Straczynski once commented on a DVD track for his highly influential show Babylon 5 – “I had two ideas for space station shows. One was all the wars and great alliances. The other was a smaller concept about how people might live on space stations. Both stalled until I realized they were both the same show.”

Writers, except when really angry or exceptionally lazy, get ideas all the time. No, I won’t show my appalling list jotted down as fragments on up to a couple sentences. Some are full ideas with plots and characters ready to jump. The rest are just pieces. I suspect my list evenly splits between the two. One of many reasons to keep the list in the first place is to make sure that we can cross-reference the new idea that seems so brilliant, except for that one part that…with all of our older ideas that might actually fix the missing piece.

As you might guess, I don’t put pen to paper without my own example to echo and enhance what Mr. Straczynski has to say about combining ideas. More on that later. Back to Babylon 5

The great alliances and wars part of the show involves a created community led by human military officers on a space station in neutral space who discover a great secret concerning some of the older spacefaring races that forces a titanic shift in the affairs of the galaxy. Over the course of millennia, two ancient races have locked into recurring cycles of a grand conflict that involve the newer races as allies choosing sides. And then the various allies discover the two sides have the same goal, assisting the newer peoples of the galaxy to advance, but have chosen two diametrically opposed methodologies. Order and Chaos.

The Vorlons do Order always asking – “who are you?” – and act like galactic Boy Scout Troop leaders organizing alliances, campouts and all kinds of opportunities to learn from teamwork. The Shadows do Chaos asking – “what do you want?” – and have made a career of encouraging the greedy and power hungry to piss off their neighbors and kick over anthills on the assumption the hive will be stronger when rebuilt. The rest of the galaxy eventually learns this and asks both to leave the galaxy. A nice five-year plot.

You’ll notice one glaring lack in the two preceding paragraphs…character. Oh, sure there are a couple great scenes to be had from this plot that can hint at certain characters like when the Shadows finally get to explain their side. Still kinda thin.

The second space station idea for Mr. Straczynski came loaded with character. It answered many questions about what these people do between their big moments. They wash socks as part of personal ritual. Or ask pointed questions like – “how far they go on the first date?” – trying to gauge a new species’ ability to fit in with the station community. And then they have to go to the doctor for advice about a “food plan.”

One character gets picked to be the union-mandated alcoholic and in some episodes has that used against him. People worry about getting fat. Or how they might bond over picking fights in the casino. They play pranks on each other just to see the target get angry.

This second space station idea came loaded with people that by themselves didn’t have anything important to do. Enter the first idea with wars, great alliances and many things for which we shake our hands and say – “ooooh!” Symbiosis in the best possible way, because – “Dumbass, they’re the same idea!”

And now, my similar epiphany that blends at least three separate brain farts maddeningly teased out of the ether in pieces and parts about like how fast food chains put together chicken nuggets…

Item One. In the vein of Dream Big and Steal from Literary Classics, we have how I typically interact with The 1,001 Nights, the four-volume unabridged translated by Burton version. Just because it’s a monster book about Scheherazade telling stories to avoid getting beheaded by her pissed off husband doesn’t mean I’m not going to steal the idea of a narrator with huge personal stakes telling and hearing stories. This is even with the fact that my edition has the well-known stories (Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin) buried deeper in the text than I’ve gone.

What with the heavy reliance on Djinn, other supernatural creatures and even a couple appearances of Count Iblis (Lucifer) in the original text, there’s clearly no way my grand homage/emulation/naked rip off won’t have many supernatural characters. I do have to admit that I only got as far as angel in this part of the idea for my narrator.

Your presumed commentary at this point is sure to run to – “Okay, Mr. Jacobs, an angel is your narrator, but to which angel do you refer, they’re still characters…or should be.” And as you might guess, not having an answer is what left this idea on my list. Despite, the fact that we really only seem to have two, three if you count Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) from Highway to Heaven, angel character archetypes from which to draw. 

Michael fights and kills things. Gabriel does the music and announcing. Mister Smith acts almost like Kwai Chang Caine going on permanent walkabout trying to help people. The rest are as anonymous to the story as FedEx drivers or perhaps the ninjas that dress like stagehands in Japanese theater and kill characters, but I digress. If your angel isn’t Mike or Gabe, you still have to invent a character. The lack thereof will stall any project.

I have one other thing to casually mention…the ambition. At this point in development, I know I’m circling closer to an angel filling in for Scheherazade. I don’t know which angel or why at this point. And like everybody with an early idea to copy the Classics, I’m just going to go bigger – “Yeah, Baby! The 2,001 Nights!” Like Spinal Tap, my amp “goes up to eleven!”

Item Two. One of my recent (less than a year) otherwise fruitless jags back into screenwriting landed me on – “I know, I’ll do Twilight Zone with a twist so I can have fun with some short but weird storytelling!” My twist ends up being the proposed title of the show, a creepy house in the mist overlooking a lonely road…House in the Mist. People who don’t know they need something roll up to stay for the night and…

Depending on the nature of the breakfast burritos I had the morning I sit down to write, the possible episodes can go anywhere. I haven’t been in very many grand old houses, but I’ve learned (metaphorically at least) to always check the closet. The real question is what’s on the other side. Edible and tasty burritos might lead to the wish fulfilment of, say, Fantasy Island. Crud probably gets us to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe probably without Lucy Pevensie having very much time for tea with Mr. Tumnus.

My thought process for the house part of this pastiche leads to no episodes, but a wraparound framing device for four. A little girl visiting the house with her parents gets up late at night searching for water. At the end of the hall, she sees a light on and enters to see four men sitting around having coffee talking about the doings of their clients. Men with recognizable names…

I’ll take a moment to make some linkages between Twilight Zone and The 1,001 Nights. How similar are the two properties? Anthology. Weird. Wonderous. And do we get to make a connection between Scheherazade and the version Rod Serling played of himself as the narrator? An essay for another day.

At this point, I still need a character with…motivation. Another way, I suppose to ask the nature of my main character/narrator. I know I’m going to feature an angel, likely due to one of my run-home-to-mama story tropes having to do with angels managing the hostile takeover and/or leveraged buyout of other pantheons. 

How did the angels give the Olympians the sumo shove when people stopped believing in them? Did they make accommodation for the deities they deemed not to bad? Offers of lateral job transitions to, say, Athena? Or kill them all? I do too many of these stories mixed in with all my other wonders. Leading to…

Item Three. My previous franchise character becomes successful enough to live in a big house with her husband and three daughters. Suddenly a fourth little girl, a foster daughter, just shows up one day and tries very hard to fit in, but she’s an outsider. With the tendencies highlighted in previous paragraphs of course this young lady is a Fallen Angel struggling to come home and performing penance as a human child.

And now I have a character. Someone really sorry for tempting humans and playing to our weaknesses and vanities who must listen to and tell the stories affected by her past actions. Three elements pulled from the ether over a period of upwards of six years. Keep all ideas and don’t be afraid of the fragements…