Yuck, you got your destiny on me

Posted: September 30, 2013 in cultural commentary, watching
Tags: , , , , , ,

I found a lot to love about Atlantis, the BBC’s new Saturday night family friendly adventure show, and some things that weren’t so great. But the thing that most got my goat wasn’t unusual or unexpected. It’s something most viewers probably won’t have formed an opinion on, but that’s become a trigger for annoyance from me.

Atlantis - exactly as good as you'd expect from this poster

Atlantis – exactly as good as you’d expect from this poster

It is your destiny

What bothers me is predestination.

As the show went on, it became increasingly clear that Jason, the lead character, is the centre of a web of prophecy, some kind of messiah figure. In a way, that’s fitting. Prophecy was all the rage in the ancient Mediterranean, the inspiration for Atlantis. But it bothers me because, in 99.99% of books, TV shows and films (trust me, I’ve faked the maths), prophecies and chosen ones turn out to be true.

This bothers me for a whole bunch of reasons, so lets start with the easiest one to explain…

Other characters

If a central character is prophesied to bring about salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, and the world works in a way where prophecies come true, then this disempowers the other characters. They’re never going to be the bringers of salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, no matter how hard they try. They become insignificant by comparison. As a reader or viewer I therefore know there are limits to what they’ll achieve. I feel sorry for them, and a bit cheated on their behalf. How could the writers do this to poor Jo? I had high hopes for him.

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was explored within this stories more. What does it feel like to be the younger brother, the sidekick, the colleague of a person who is known to be so much more significant? It looks like Agents of SHIELD might start exploring this in relation to superheroics, but mostly it gets ignored, or if we’re lucky turned into a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue.

The hero

In my mind, predestination, prophecy, all that jazz, if it’s real then it disempowers the hero as well. Their path is pre-ordained. They can try to find alternatives, but they’ll be drawn back no matter what. Poor hero.

And that also lessens them in my eyes. Even if they’ve struggled against enormous odds to achieve their destiny, were they really enormous odds if the universe had said from the start that they’d win? Not so much. I feel less like cheering and more like giving a gentle thumbs up.

The reader

And then there’s me, the reader or viewer. If I know there’s a prophecy, and I know that prophecies always work out, I feel less tension. My long-shot hopes for the hero to choose a different path, or for someone unexpected to shine through instead, those are gone.

Plus prophecy tends to be a warning sign that Very Portentous Things are about to happen. That the creator of the story wants a short-cut to making me take things Very Seriously Indeed. This was my problem with seasons three and four of Angel. Things became Very Serious Indeed. In fact, the show spent so time making things Very Serious Indeed that it stopped putting its full effort into character, pacing and humour. If there’s a prophecy, I fear for the future of any story.

I foresee hope

Of course, none of this is absolute. Writers can, potentially, do interesting things with prophecy. George R R Martin lets prophecies motivate people and then go unfulfilled, just like in real life. J K Rowling, whose Harry Potter books suffered from lashings of destiny, played with this a little through Neville (not coincidentally, my favourite Hogwarts student). But usually, prophecy is just a cheap short-cut to express importance, a way to tell us that the protagonist is significant even though we already know that because, well, they’re the protagonist.
There’s a lot of interesting stories that could be told about prophecy, its social impact, its psychological effect on those involved, what happens when it fails. And maybe, just maybe, Atlantis will do that. After all, it’s been created by Howard Overman, the mind behind Misfits. But on the other hand, it’s in the easy viewing Saturday adventure slot, so I won’t hold out much hope.

I know other people must love a good prophecy. After all, they turn up in books all the time. But I don’t get it, I really don’t.

Do you love a good prophecy? Know a good example where it’s undermined? Have an opinion on Atlantis? Then I foresee that you will leave a comment below.

  1. north5 says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Predestiny becomes a lazy shorthand for “we know all the stuff and you don’t”. It’s a poor man’s excuse for a partial reveal, and used as a cover for Fridge Logic. Why didn’t the Oracle tell Jason what was in store for him? BECAUSE SHE WAS PREDESTINED NOT TO TELL HIM. Why did Jason fall on Pythagoras’ house? PREDESTINY. How come he found his father’s sub first time? PREDESTINY ON CHIPS.

    At least in Harry Potter, there was a clause worth striving for – essentially the main prophecy was “one of these two must die”, but didn’t specify which one, or how, so plenty of wriggle-room. Get going, Harry, or you’ll get shivved. The Bard’s Macbeth played the “technicality” card, which probably wasn’t a cliché back then. So there’s plenty of better ways to do it.

    I fear that Jason’s “destiny” will be little more than “we writers are cleverer than you” (Dr Who) or, worse, “we writers haven’t written the next bit yet” (Lost).

    Eh, I enjoyed it in a fruit-spilling, cgi-slaying way, and it fits the “family entertainment” slot in our house now. (And my own main gripe with it lies with its total obsequiousness to the altar of gender stereotyping … sigh. C-, could do better.)

    • You’re right about the use of prophecy to cover poor plotting. And then there’s its use to create a cheap and unconvincing sense of the ominous – behold a prophecy, ooooooh.

      I hadn’t thought about gender in the show, except in as far as Jason’s occasional shirtlessness was clearly aimed at one half of the audience. But you’re right, it’s looking pretty poor on the stereotyping front, and that’s making me think about whether Overman’s likely to improve this as he goes along. It’s tricky, as the modern Dickensian caricatures that were the Misfits characters went some way to hiding biases around gender. But in Atlantis he seems to be buying whole-heartedly into the heroic epic form, with all the gendered nonsense that often entails. Sad face.

  2. […] Yuck, you got your destiny on me (andrewknighton.wordpress.com) […]

  3. John Moley says:

    I didn’t catch this, and in all honesty probably won’t: The promotional image made me think, “oh, so it’s like Percy Jackson, but without the token nod to issues of gender or race.” However, besides the awesome that is Misfits (at least in the early days), my favourite deconstructions of the heroic destiny (or the wider protagonist phenomenon) are…
    (3) Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Lower Decks”
    (2) Doctor Who – “Love & Monsters”
    (1) Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “The Zeppo”
    And, of course, the final series of Angel, which I think went a long way to remedy the flaws of the previous two series. I love the idea that, whenever they become aware of a powerful individual, the “powers that be” use destiny and prophecy to channel that individual in directions that minimise their impact. If you can’t take away their power, at least rob them of their agency. 🙂

    • Nice examples. I do love ‘The Zeppo’ and its playful perspective on the impact of heroes. In fact, Whedon’s shows have done some of the best work in looking at different aspects of this, but they still all fall into the trap of a universe where any significant prophecy is always true, even if it’s phrased misleadingly.

      • John Moley says:

        Except in Angel, right? By clarifying that prophecies are pacts with insanely powerful demonic entities, the show answers both why prophecies usually come true and how they can be broken. Angel signs his destiny away for the opportunity to take an action that was unforeseen. To my mind, this is far more heroic than fulfilling your destiny; allowing yourself to be moved like a chess piece by forces beyond your comprehension.

        • That does sound good, but Angel played straight with the standard prophecy tropes for so long that I’d forgotten that that happened, and when I look back on the show it’s with the usual ‘meh, prophecy’ feeling.

          That said, season five was good enough that I should re-watch it.

  4. I hate the ideas of prophecy and predestination so much that I built my entire fantasy world around the idea that prophecies are just probabilities, but that people take these portentous words to be the truth and struggle viciously to reach those prophesied futures even when the fall of the dice has set them utterly out of reach. I don’t play this on the surface but it underpins a lot of my magic system and caused a great amount of strife in the past, accidentally birthed a religion, and will plague a certain character until he dies. And I feel this way for all the reasons you mentioned above: it diminishes all the characters involved and removes their agency.

    I even have a false/shifting-prophecy story outlined in my head that harps on this directly, but it will have to wait a while.

  5. […] This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction. […]

  6. […] its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their […]

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