Sunday, September 16, 2007

Deus Ex Machina

You know what I'm talking about. You're watching Star Trek TNG and you look at the clock. Ten minutes to go and the crew is still in deep s***. You know the situation needs to be resolved before the show goes to commercial but there seems to be no solution in sight. That's where Deus ex machina comes in. Commonly defined as an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (e.g. an angel suddenly appearing to solve problems), Deus ex machina is a plot device all TV shows, movies and books seem to employ at one time. Remember the infamous Dallas episode that wrote off an entire season as a bad dream? So common is the Deus ex machina phenomenon, that Wikipedia (not super reliable, but hey, a decent source for the purposes of a blog) has several types of techniques listed. Such as: The Reset Button Technique; simply put, use of a reset button device returns all characters and situations to the status quo they held before a major change of some sort was introduced. Examples given: The TV series Quantum Leap—The very premise of this show, Dr. Beckett’s “leaping from life to life” through time, provided a natural and complete reset device for each episode. As long as Dr. Beckett never leaped home (to stay), nothing substantial in his situation could change, since at each episode’s end he would leap out of the time, place, and identity he had occupied for the duration of that show, to be assigned a completely new setting and identity in the next episode. In an episode of the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman, Clark Kent is kidnapped along with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson by a villain intent on procuring a memory loss spray. Threatened with death, Clark takes off his glasses and reveals that he is Superman. He later erases his friends’ memories with the spray. Character shields; (also known as plot armor or plot shield) are plot devices in films and television shows that prevent important characters from dying or being seriously injured at dramatically inconvenient moments. It often denotes a situation in which it strains credibility to believe that the character would survive. Example given: The phrase originated with fans of the television show Star Trek to describe combat situations where the Enterprise is not destroyed, but other ships without major characters aboard are lost. The idea is that important characters shield their ship from damage. It also applies to situations where important characters (the stars of the show) survive difficult circumstances, but a minor character is killed. Expendable characters are sometimes referred to as "Redshirts," since red uniforms in the original Star Trek indicated security personnel, who were often the first to die in any given episode. Suspension of disbelief; was coined by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 to refer to what he called "dramatic truth". It refers to the alleged willingness of a reader or viewer to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are fantastic, impossible, or otherwise contradictory to "reality". It also refers to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is a quid pro quo: the audience tacitly agrees to provisionally suspend their judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment. Example given: According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient in the enjoyment of many B-grade science fiction films and television series such as the early series of Doctor Who, where the audience willingly ignores low-budget "cheesy" props and occasional plot holes, in order to fully engage with the enjoyable story — which may be the more so for those additions to its inherent outrageousness. One of the most-well known examples of suspension of disbelief is the audience's acceptance that Superman hides his identity from the world by simply donning a pair of glasses, wearing conservative clothing, and acting in a "mild-mannered" fashion. Not only is the disguise so thin as to be ridiculous, but also in the TV series, Adventures of Superman, this absurdity was carried to an extreme. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen constantly suspected Clark Kent of being Superman, yet when obvious evidence was right in their faces — such as times when Clark was missing his glasses — they never saw the resemblance One of the most interesting aspects of the whole Deus ex machina phenomenon is that it seems more closely tied with sci-fi/fantasy than any other genre--except maybe soap operas. (which is just a sad sad thing) It makes sense of course, after all, there is nothing so fantastic as what we see in our favorite movies: time travel, space flight, super human powers, magic etc.... But wait, shouldn't the fact that sci-fi/fantasy tropes involve ideas that are already outside the realm of what we know to be possible make Deus ex machina redundant? I mean, Superman already has God-like powers, do we really need an improbable, last minute salvation in another form? Don't we already have one? Jeez, just the inconsistency of it is giving me a headache.

12 comments:

Crunchy Carpets said...

I always thought Deus Ex Machina was a good hockey player name.

And great post!!!!

SQT said...

Thanks Crunchy. It may have potential as a band name too. Actually, there's probably a band out there somewhere that already has the name.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A great post. Plot crediblilty is stretched at times.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Shall we talk about the most annoying use of Deus Ex Machina. Stephen King wrote "THE STAND". He brought the forces of good and evil together for a final show down, dragging the reader through close to one thousand pages, and then slammed the book shut by resolving conflict with the hand of God. What crap.

SQT said...

Stu

I think I blocked that from my memory. I haven't read The Stand in ages so I didn't remember the ending.

I've always had issues with Stephen King's endings. They just never work for me. And no matter how many times people tell me it wasn't a spider at the end of IT, it was a friggin spider. I went back and looked. I don't know if King was going for imagery or what, but he used the word spider. A big, stupid spider.

Whatever.

Matt said...

One word: Dallas.

SQT said...

Yep Matt. That's why I mentioned it in the second paragraph.

A whole season??

The Curmudgeon said...

It's nice that the conventions of classic Greek drama are still being employed on our TV's every night. There's a certain... continuity in it.

The reason it's called "deus ex machina" (god from a machine) is that a character playing a god would be lowered by rope and pulley into the action on stage and resolve what the plot problems that had seemed insoluble....

Katie said...

It makes me wonder what these people are thinking when they do it. "Oh, crap! I've just killed off my main character that I need for the next half hour!" Great post by the way. :)

Alex said...

Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.


BTW, my buddy and I were talking over some pints the other night, and we decided the only way that Ian Fleming could ever regain a shred of authorial dignity is if someone discovers a lost manuscript where Bond dies in the first chapter, and none of his gadgets (dei ex machinae, one and all!) can save him.

Matt said...

Four words: I don't read good.

SQT said...

LOL

Caught you skimming.