Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

Thoughts on ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars

I wasn’t sure whether I’d including the Holiday Special in my Star Wars rewatch, for the obvious reason that it’s not really part of the series proper. But, in the end, I decided that, since I had it (in the Rifftrax version), I might as well take another look in context of the rest of the series.

I’ve written about this one before, so there will be some repetition, but basically…yeah, it’s incredibly bad. Not just bad in terms of writing and execution, but bad in some really strange ways. Like, one of the first things that happens is that Chewie’s son, Lumpy, and father, Itchy stand around watching a hologram of a circus act for three minutes straight. Who would think that was good idea for any show, let alone a ‘Star Wars’ entry? Kind of a step down from the attack on Princess Leia’s ship.

Of course, that stems from the fact the special is structured as a standard variety show, only set within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. That itself is just such a strange idea; it’s as if, between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, they did a special where Frodo and Sam ended up on a game show en-route to Mordor: why would anyone even think to do this, let alone take the time and spend the money to bring it to life?

Apparently, George Lucas meant this as a way to keep the brand in the public mind and continue to sell merchandise in between films, though it seems he wasn’t directly involved in either the writing or directing of this one, beyond the initial concept. The actual writers, I can only imagine (and at least one has confirmed), were all higher than satellites, to judge by the results. Among other things, we have about a quarter of an hour of Chewbacca’s family, done entirely in Wookie language. So, those growling noises Chewie makes? About half the special is done in that, without subtitles (this, apparently, was entirely Lucas’s idea). Then there’s the softcore porn film starring Diahann Carrol that Itchy gets from Art Carney. Believe me, I wish I could make up something as crazy as that.

Again, why is Chewbacca’s father watching a porno film? Who would even consider filming something like that? Not only in a ‘Star Wars’ entry, but in a ‘holiday special’? Also, that’s not an interpretation: the producers are on record saying that’s exactly what the scene is supposed to represent.

The plot (involving Chewbacca trying to get home to spend ‘Life Day’ with his family) is paper thin, and serves only to provide an extremely flimsy pretext for the skits. Though, even then the skits just sort of come out of nowhere, only occasionally with any justification whatsoever. Like, the Jefferson Starship musical number (no, not making that up) is Art Carney trying to distract an Imperial patrol…only, nothing comes of it; there’s no purpose to the distraction. It just eats up time.

Then there’s the cartoon short, showing a side-adventure of Luke, Han, and the droids, wherein they meet Boba Fett for the first time. This comes about simply from Lumpy watching a video player. Why is he doing that while there are Imperial troops sweeping his house? And why does he even have a cartoon of his father and his friends on an adventure in the first place? Why would such a thing even exist in this universe? You see, even as a framing device, the story is terrible.

As for the cartoon itself, it’s…pretty lame. The animation is terrible (Han in particular looks downright grotesque). The plot, involving a magical talisman that contains an Imperial bioweapon causing a form of sleeping sickness in humans, is at once too complicated and too silly to work even in a cartoon. Boba Fett doesn’t really do anything cool and his plan is foiled in a painfully lazy way, though admittedly it is kind of interesting to see him here before his official introduction in Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of the main cast, they’re barely in the special at all. They just show up now and again for a couple minutes to remind us that ‘oh yeah, this is related to something we liked.’ Not only that, but they’re all kind of…strange. Mark Hamill is buried in very visible makeup meant to hide the effects of a recent car crash. Carrie Fisher, clearly at the height of her drug addiction, is visibly unsteady on her feet and stumbles over her lines. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is clearly growing more and more bored as the show goes on, until he seems barely able to muster the energy to get his dialogue out. As for James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (who gets a special “and” credit in the opening), he has two scenes, one of which is in the cartoon and the other a dubbed scene from the first film.

Of course, saying the Holiday Special is bad is like saying the original Star Wars is good: it’s pretty much established fact at this point. So, is there anything positive to say about the special?

Actually, there is.

First of all, I really like the fact that the special actually shows the Empire from the point of view of the ordinary people of the galaxy. In the films, we see them doing terrible things, but mostly in the form of broad, specific outrages, mostly directed against the rebels themselves. Here, we get to see Imperial tyranny in the form of small, day-to-day injustices. For instance, there’s an early scene where Art Carney’s character (a trader) shows his wares to an Imperial officer, who, deciding he likes one of the items, simply declares, “I’ll take it” and walks off without paying. That’s a perfectly well-conceived (if not especially well-written) scenario, demonstrating just what the Empire means to ordinary people.

Likewise, a large part of the special is taken up by the Imperial Troops searching Chewie’s house for signs of rebel activity, threatening and abusing his family the whole time. The way Chewie’s family, with Art Carney’s help, have to tread carefully even as they’re tying to get the troops out before Chewbacca comes home is fairly well conceived and again captures that sense of powerlessness that comes from being under a tyrannical government in a way that’s not really seen in the films proper. There was some coherent thought put into this scenario.

Then there’s a late scene where the Empire imposes a curfew that forces the cantina on Tatooine to shut down. This creates a real headache for the owner (Bea Arthur), who finds herself forced to find a way to throw all her low-life customers out without offending them. But, again, there’s nothing she can do about it except to grumble resentfully and try her best.

On that subject, Arthur’s segment in the cantina is easily the best part of the special. Unlike just about everyone else (which includes some fantastically talented people, like Art Carney and Diahann Carrol), she actually puts in a legitimate performance, has some decent material to work with, and is honestly entertaining. There’s a particularly good line where, after being obliged to bribe her customers out with another round of drinks, she complains “I’m running a tab for the Empire.” She even elicits some honest emotions in the scene where she bids her staff goodnight before turning back into the now-empty bar. The whole segment feels refreshingly honest and human, not to mention it’s possibly the only piece of the whole special that actually seems like it fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I can absolutely see Bea Arthur being the owner of the Cantina from original film, and that this is the sort of thing she deals with on a regular basis.

And I will say that the final shots, of Chewie and his family sitting quietly and enjoying ‘Life Day,’ are rather sweet. The preceding scene of Wookies marching through space in robes and Carrie Fisher singing, not so much.

So, yeah, in summary, this is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid piece of work, the kind of thing where you really wish you could see the making of, just because you want to know what kind of thought process could have led to some of these scenes. I really hope someone, somewhere does a full-blown research project on this so that one day we can get a full documentary on just what they heck happened to bring this thing to life.

The Not Mary Sue

I’m rewatching Kim Possible at the moment, after being away from it for several years, and I’m delighted to find it’s even better than I remember it. It’s not quite in the same league as Phineas and Ferb or My Little Pony, but it is a very solid, very entertaining show anchored by two particularly great leads.

It’s also instructive on how to write an absurdly capable character without her turning into a Mary Sue.

First some definitions: a Mary Sue is a character who is unrealistically perfect, whom all the good characters like, who never has to seriously struggle, and whom the audience is really, really supposed to admire. A textbook example would be Rey from The Force Awakens: the girl who can fly the Millennium Falcon, shoot a blaster, and wield a lightsaber better than anyone even with zero training or experience and who has no flaws to speak of, never seriously fails at anything, and who has everyone from Han Solo to the villain gushing with admiration over her.

Now, Kim Possible, the girl who “can do anything” seems like she would be a classic case of a Mary Sue. She’s a beautiful, popular cheerleader who saves the world as a hobby, has climbed Mt. Everest, swam the English Channel, and maintains a perfect GPA. She frequently saves her loser male sidekick, Ron Stoppable, and has a long rolodex of incredible feats.

But the thing is, Kim isn’t a Mary Sue. On the contrary, despite her exaggerated abilities, she’s a very likable, very believable character. One of the ways they do this is that Kim’s feats, impressive though they are, are limited. She can perform fantastic acrobatics and kung-fu fighting moves, but she still has to put up with things like detention, unpleasant fellow students, and getting butterflies while talking to cute boys. She faces instances of temptation and doesn’t always do the right thing, e.g. when she lies to both Ron and her parents in order to go a party where her crush is attending.

Basically, Kim’s ability to excel doesn’t mean that her life is perfect, or that she herself is perfect. It’s simply a fact about her, like the color of her hair. She still has to make the right choices and still has to deal with day-to-day problems. For instance, Kim’s school rival is the smug Bonnie, who never misses a chance to insult or belittle her. But since they’re both on the cheer-squad, Kim still has to try to get along with her as well as she can.

Likewise, Kim is shown to have clear flaws: she’s very competitive, kind of vain, and a bit of a snob. There’s an episode where she takes over coaching a ten-year olds’ soccer team and drives them so hard that they start crying when she shows up. Not only are these real flaws, ones that cause problems for her and others, but they’re very believable ones for someone of her personality type to have. And, despite her assertions, Kim can’t do anything: she’s a terrible cook, gets very irritated over mundane tasks, and becomes a mess when she gets nervous.

In short, Kim’s not always right, not always on top, and doesn’t always excel. She experiences failure, disappointment, and frustration. She makes mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.

Perhaps most surprising of all, given the evident feminist bent of the show, is how much she needs Ron’s help. It’s true she often has to save him, but that doesn’t mean that Ron is simply useless. On the contrary, he’s often the key to saving the day, and occasionally gets to go on his own adventures. Not only that, but the show repeatedly makes the point that Ron is a major factor in Kim’s success, and that her crime fighting is severely handicapped without him. Best of all, he periodically has to rescue her. Basically, for all that Kim is the star, Ron is really just as important to the story as she is (in some ways more so: his character arc is much more pronounced than hers, so that the show could almost be thought of as more Ron’s story than Kim’s).

Beyond that, they balance each other’s characters very well: she’s an overachiever, he’s an underachiever. She prods him to get serious and work hard, he prods her to relax and have a little perspective. The result is that they have a very charming, very believable relationship: a close friendship that grows into romance over the course of the series, and which culminates in Ron coming into his own as a hero in order to save Kim (it’s honestly a very cool progression and my favorite aspect of the show).

Does any of this make Kim less admirable or less of a role model? On the contrary, it makes her much, much more so. If she simply excelled at everything and was always on top of things, she’d be insufferable. The fact that she does have to struggle, does have to face up to her own flaws, and does sometimes need help makes more human and consequently more likable. Her relationship with Ron, and with it the fact that she isn’t completely self-sufficient, puts her incredible abilities in a human context and gives both her and Ron room to grow as characters.

Kim is really a textbook example of how to avoid making a character a Mary Sue: she can be as absurdly capable as you like, but let her have flaws, let her make mistakes, and above all, have her need someone. In short, let her be a little vulnerable and a little human.

 

How to Write Stupid Characters

Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.

I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”

Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.

So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

Doofenshmirtz_Portrait.jpg

Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.

In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).

But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.

You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).

Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).

In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.

A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.

Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.

Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.

So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.