Oh Legends… like a blind date with Karen Gillan I was so prepared to love everything about you and propose immediately. And just like that blind date* you bit off more than you could chew and nearly choked to death…
Everyone repeat after me: If you want to do time travel, establish clear rules and FOLLOW THEM.
I know some might bring up Dr. Who (and who can blame them with a show staring Arthur Darvill) which runs very much on a rule of drama and hang the details but I would like to point out:
- Dr. Who has been around for 50 years now. It has an immense amount of audience goodwill to coast over any rough patches in its stories.
- If you ever go back and watch the first episodes of the show (which might be hard, SFDebris explains why) you’ll notice that they were also detail oriented. First thing they do? BREAK the time machine!
See, I’m going to name the following “Nate’s Why Rule”**
If you ask “why” to any action/event/etc relevant to the story the answer better not be “because the storyteller said so.”
Example: “Why does R2D2 want to go to Obi-Wan Kenobi? – Because Leia told him to.”
And the “because” must always be created from material within the story itself and not be contradicted by anything else within the story. Sole exception is anything that can be answered by common human experience, i.e. “Why doesn’t he go into that room? Because it’s on fire and fire is bad.” (you don’t need the story to tell you fire is bad, most of us know that by now)
I will probably go into that in more detail in its own post perhaps but the principle is that for any story to even approach quality, it must at least work at the first “why” level (you’ve probably already realized that you can chain “whys” together – that would be the second, third, fourth, etc level) and it also usually applies to “who, what, when, where, and how” but those are more flexible and usually less important than “why.”
The single biggest issue with Time Travel stories is there’s always one question overhanging everything: “Why don’t they go back and try again?” Back to the Future is brilliant because it shows the audience “because the time machine is incredibly unreliable and hard to power.” Legends tried to say something about avoiding self-intersection and “solidifying” time but what do those mean? If time solidifies why can’t they go to yesterday and try again?
The worst is that it didn’t have to be this way. They establish the group as being on the run from authorities, establish (and demonstrate) that jumping can make it easier for said authorities to locate the group. Instead throughout most of the series, agents of said authorities always showed up right as the episode’s plot was revolved and we needed a closing action set-piece. Why did those agents appear then? Because the storyteller said so.
Almost every weakness of this series can be laid at writing. The actors all did excellent jobs with what they had but little was ever provided in the way of real character arcs and instead characters changed “because the storyteller said so.” And for years many successful television shows have shown how to handle ensemble casts: you rotate focus from episode to episode. Instead it looks like the show creators decided to try and buck trends and have every character feature equally in the show, which left no time for any of them to really develop leaving us with a lot of characters we were told about but never shown anything.
On the one hand I do appreciate the show trying things, the problem is that it tried too much and just like starting off with chainsaws when trying to learn to juggle, the results were messy. But it didn’t have to be. Everything was there and in place for a truly great series and memorable TV experience. (I might make a “how Legends of Tomorrow could have been” if anybody really wants me to.) If anything my verdict is that it tried to be both high camp and serious drama. There are some moments that show it could have worked had they settled on the feel. “Marooned” (#7) showed that the show could do serious drama, and “the Magnificent Eight” (#11) showed they could rock the high camp too. Instead they often tried to do both, which caused both styles to undermine the other and lead to a collapse in narrative.
But a lot of my favorite shows have bounced back after very lackluster first seasons. Legends has plenty of room to grow and here’s hoping next season they finally get the tone and rhythm perfected to give the viewers the quality DC TV that we know these guys can.
*I’m kidding of course. I don’t go on dates.
**if anyone knows where this has been formulated by wiser men than me, let me know so they can get proper credit