TV SF Tropes That Need To Die, pt 1

As you might be able to tell by the title, I’m fed up with a number of the stock, boring, and stupid plots that get dressed up as “Science Fiction,” though they also show up in other forms in series drama. These tropes represent the functional equivalent of training wheels for writers, exhibit an appalling lack of creativity, and they’re really insulting to the audience.

Also, they’re fun to rant about.

So, for the first entry in this series: Plots that depend on thinly-justified character derailment.

1) Characters act out of character because an alien took them over
Invariably, the “acting out of character” is so obvious that a blind macaque could spot it at a hundred yards, and yet their friends never notice until it’s convenient for the plot. Also, see #5

2) Characters act out of character because a virus is running rampant
There are viruses that do this. Recent research suggests that a virus might even be responsible for schizophrenia. However, such viruses aren’t cured by a quick zap by the magic thingamajig. They don’t cause the most plot-convenient conflict. And people don’t magically forgive injuries done to them by a virus-maddened former-friend who’s now trying to kill them, steal their spouses, and sexually molest their pet parakeets.

3) Characters act out of character because a computer replaced them with a hologram.
Really, guys, is this the best you can do? A computer wants to feel what it’s like to be human so it takes over someone’s life? Again? Didn’t I see this on every other SF show ever produced? And didn’t it really suck then too?

4) Characters act out of character because someone stole their DNA.
Because, really, if you were jealous of someone’s life, you couldn’t think of a better way to get petty vengence than by putting your body through a painful and likely fatal mutagenic process just so you could attempt to pass for them and kiss their significant other? Whatever happened to framing someone for murder, besmirching their character, or doing something else that might,for example, leave you alive and able to feast on the spoils of your victory instead of dying a horrible death at the hands of your own experiment? Or worse, getting contrived forgiveness after everyone you just greviously wronged manages to save your sorry ass from your own blinding stupidity?

5) Characters act out of character because someone stole their body/swapped bodies with them.

The personality exists in the brain, which is part of the body. If you’re going to swap bodies, you’re going to have to do a brain transplant. If, in your fictional universe, there is an immaterial soul that carries the personality, is it really going to sit around defenseless while you try to redirect it into another body by clever manipulation of television antennae (or the functional equivalent)? If your soul is so fragile that it’s vulnerable to anything nearly as flimsy as the Mcguffin’s in Science Fiction, then having one is clearly overrated in the first place–or your fictional universe would have fallent to pieces at the drop of the hat far before the time when your story takes place.
This story is dead, really. Heinlein did this one first, and best, with The Puppet Masters. The rip-off, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was almost as good. When something’s been done as good as it can be done, you just stop. Period. In both cases, these worked because they paid attention to the way human anatomy, physiology, and psychology work: The Puppet Masters hijacked the nervous system but left the original personality intact, while the Body Snatchers made a cosmetic copy of the body and killed the original person off while they slept, but copied over memories to avoid confusion.

6) Characters act out of character because an imaginary scientific anomoly is driving people crazy
Because, in real life, when astronauts go through the Van Allen belt, or walk on different planets, or breathe a different oxygen mixture, or look at the sun without sunglasses, or get exposed to radiation, or inadvertently eat bad food, they always go on a psychotic killing rampage or a nymphomanicial sex bender or feel the irrepressible urge to reconfigure their equipment to enable an alien invasion.

7) Characters act out of character because of an external influence because it’s the only way to get the characters to have sex.
Because we all know that post-pubescent and otherwise apparently mature adults (particularly unrealistically attractive single ones who are constantly flirting), never, ever have sex with anybody–and if they do, they’re completely embarassed and self-conscious for several episodes, unless they can claim that an alien plague made them do it.

8) Characters act out of character because the plot requires them to be uncharictaristically stupid.
Because really, where’s the drama potential in a cast of highly intelligent, eccentric characters with opposing interests and differing vaules all being forced to work together (i.e. the plot of every series drama ever written)? You could never get conflict out of that. What you really need is for someone to accidentally lick an experimental battery and decide to take over the world.

9) Characters act out of character because it’s the only way to generate enough conflict to keep the story interesting.
See #8, but remove the experimental battery justification.

10) Characters act out of character for any bullshit reason involving made-up science, magic, violations of the laws of physics, or an insult to the viewer’s intelligence.
Granted, this would kill over 90% of all televised science fiction, but you can’t make an omlette without killing a few writers.

Bookmark the permalink.

11 Comments

  1. Love these!

    I just saw an episode of Eureka last night that made two of us groan in stereo – the “Character gets zapped by radiation” which wasn’t bad except for the following obligatory line, spewed when the character started manifesting special abilities- “humans only use about ten percent of their brains, but…” blah blah blah.

  2. I’m all there with you — I saw that episode a few days ago. The series only gets worse — ALL of these have occurred at least once (usually more) by mid season 3.

  3. …what about “Character acts out of character because of a crappy writer”? I’ve seen plenty of those….

  4. I suspect these are all subspecies of that primary type.

  5. …and they must all die slow horrible screeching deaths.

  6. The reason these imagination failures occur is ecnomics. Stupid humans pay too much for pretty actors and blingy special effects and not enough for an intelligent plot.

  7. Yes to all of these, but especially #5. On the bizarrely ridiculous scale, this trope is dumber than the ST:TOS episode Spock’s Brain.

    Another of my most-hated SF tropes is inconsistent telepathy. Troi can apparently read emotions through a view screen that’s transmitting from, possibly, light years away but often can’t pinpoint the only sentient being on a planet the Enterprise is orbiting. View screens are magically imbued with telepathic sensing and projecting that can’t be turned off even when it’s really convenient?

  8. J.E. — That’s a good one, I’ll have to add it to the list about Telepathy (I should be able to keep this series going for a goodly long time).

    Erik — Not sure about that — TV writers are very well paid. I think it might have more to do with executives underestimating the intelligence of the viewers, or with SF shows being run by people who were fired from the staff of Full House back in the ’90s.
    -Dan

  9. > If your soul is so fragile that it’s vulnerable to anything nearly
    > as flimsy as the Mcguffin’s in Science Fiction, then having one is > clearly overrated in the first place–or your fictional universe
    > would have fallen to pieces at the drop of the hat far before the
    > time when your story takes place.

    I think there’s a flaw in your logic here. If one postulates a universe in which the soul is immaterial and transferable, then “having one” cannot be overrated, because that soul is essentially YOU and without it there is no YOU to have it. You can’t fairly compare characters in such a universe to those in another universe where the soul is purely a biophysical construct, because neither character gets the option of choosing which sort of universe it was “born” in. I also fail to see how an immaterial and transferable soul in any way affects the stability of the universe in question. Babylon 5, for instance, had immaterial, transferable souls that were vulnerable to certain forms of advanced technology, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt the stability of JMS’s universe at all. That said, JMS never used soul-swap as an excuse for personality changes in characters, either.

    Apart from that, I enjoyed the post. 🙂

  10. Are the writers really to blame or is it just that the people who pay for and approve these shows won’t accept anything else. The writers can just change a few things with the same story and keep selling it over and over because that’s what will get them money.I have to say though, an evening watching crappy sci fi is better than an evening watching crappy lifetime or even worse network television.

Comments are closed