I can tell you that I often know a few minutes into watching or reading something if I’m going to have something to say about it.
Case in point, I’m now 13 minutes into Netflix’s new Lost in Space reboot, and I can already tell that there’s a lot of shoddy writing ahead.
How do I know?
The way the story butchers en medias res.
And, it makes me want to talk about that writing technique as a whole. Something that struck me was that en medias res isn’t safe strategy. Leaving out the beginning either scores big or flops just as hard.
And, Lost in Space is flopping quite hard. I stopped to write at the 13-minute mark because that was the spot in the show when the characters first did something interesting.
Up until that point, they:
- Play go fish in space, until
- The ship’s computer starts reentry and gravity returns
- The computer does a crappy job of landing, which break’s mom’s leg
- They leave the ship
- The ship sinks under ice
- They sit around bummed until they decide to return to the sunken ship for supplies.
There’s a ton of artificial drama along the way, mostly created by the three siblings being petty towards each other. There’s not a lot of character development, something which is super important in en medias res because you’ve lopped off the beginning of the story where character can be established more easily.
There is a flashback scene but other than establishing a couple of (boring) facts about the universe, it does very little. The most character-developing thing we learn is that one of the daughters is really attached to her phone, something that sets off a moment of sibling pettiness in the ensuing scenes.
I was looking at reviews to see if there was anyone else who felt as I did, and I found one that was pretty insightful.
Todd VanDerWerff at Vox writes that “the thrill of exploration, or the examination of family dynamics, never feels like it arises organically from the action, in the way it might have on the show’s most obvious forebear that isn’t its direct predecessor: Lost . . . But when Lost in Space does a flashback, it’s too often a pure exposition dump.”
This is a great comparison because the start of both series parallels in so many ways. Both feature the stories of those who survived a traumatic accident far from home.
While I was thinking about why Lost worked and Lost in Space didn’t, I realized that there was a movie series that used en medias res well. In the Jason Bourne movies, the titular character wakes up with no memories of who he is, but with the ingrained knowledge of how to be a successful CIA assassin and spy, which disturbs him to no end. He goes on a quest to figure out why he knows these things, where his new perceived nature conflicts with his learned skills.
Likewise, the main characters in Lost are those who survived the plane crash and instead of sitting around in shock, start to make their situation better and figure out what went wrong.
These shows are using en medias res well. Instead of using it as a tool to try and create mystery by concealing information from the audience that the characters readily have, they use it to highlight the fact that the characters don’t have the information they need to understand. The form of the story matches up with the problems that the characters are having, and the people watching are along for the same ride.
If you’re merely using en medias res to conceal information from your audience, you’re turning what can be a cool tool into a frustrating crutch. When performed incorrectly, you take your strongest ally, which is people caring about your characters and what happens to them and transform it into apathy. I don’t care what happens next to the characters in Lost in Space, even if the events are objectively exciting, because I know next-to-nothing about them. That sounds callous, but it’s how the human mind works.
So, how do you use the technique correctly?
I like the rules that Kristen Lamb laid out in her blog:
When using en medias res, “[j]ust get as close to that decision as possible, but still give us 1) time to get attached 2) an opportunity to see the story problem 3) a chance for the characters to walk away and end the story.”
I love that third point.
Jason Bourne doesn’t have to discover the dark secret of who he is. He could start over, live a normal life. The main characters of Lost could just be another face in the crowd. The fact that they choose not to be is profoundly meaningful.
The incompetent fools in Lost in Space begin the show in a ship they’re not even flying that’s currently crash landing, and the authors have the audacity to suggest that an ex-army man and his brilliant wife are going to be playing goldfish with the kids while this is going on. I don’t buy it.
Earth is doomed, your ship is crashing, and you’re playing goldfish.
I can’t help but imagine that the previous sentence also describes the state of the writer’s room. The story isn’t working, filming starts tomorrow, should we fix the problems?
Nah, just start shooting.
I sat down and watched the opening of the original Lost in Space. It starts with narration over a shot of mission control: “This is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history’s great adventures: Man’s colonization of space beyond the stars. This is Alpha Control. Zero minus one hour and fifteen minutes and holding. Delay caused by difficulty with oxygen loading valve. Zero minus one hour and fifteen minutes and holding. TV Satellite Control, take over.”
Hey, that’s pretty cool. The stage is set. You know what people are doing. You know it’s important, even if you don’t know why. They even throw in a potential plot hook. I sure hope that oxygen loading valve isn’t going to become a problem. I’m worried about the people onboard now.
It’s not the most elegant, modern solution, but it works.
And think about this: you could start the modern reboot by calling back to the opening of the original.
Begin with, “[t]his is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history’s great adventures: Man’s colonization of space beyond the stars.”
Then, you pan down to show the family sitting at the table in zero-g, playing goldfish. Bit of ironic humor right off the bat, but you set the stage instead of hanging your audience out to dry. Or freeze, as the case may be, since they land on an ice planet, and looking at the scenery is far more interesting than whatever it is the family is up to.