Friday, December 26, 2014

Slave to many masters - the problem of prequels

Peter Jackson is finally leaving Middle Earth behind. Lucky for us, Star Wars is back next year and the Marvel Universe will keep kicking along with the All Star DC-verse ready to launch in 2015. These large multi-film story archs that these films try to tell are great for fans to follow along with - Easter eggs are hardly in short supply these days. But needing to link together with other films drags down the story we are trying to enjoy now. The need to prepare for the future, in particular, shoe horns the director and writer into serving dual purposes with their story telling. Sometimes a director balances the two masters. Others struggle to do this.

The Hobbit, as a trilogy, falls into the second category. The original novel, as prequel to Lord of The Rings, contains only fleeting connections. There is the scene with Gollum and Bilbo's discovery of the ring, and the presence of Gandalf. From this Tolkien was able to create a rich tapestry fantasy world. But The Hobbit, as a novel works on its own. The story is succinct but still has a number of subplots, most of which are resolved adequately without the need for appendices. For those who came to Middle Earth via the LOTR trilogy, reading The Hobbit as a prequel is stil a rewarding experience.

The films weren't comfortable with mere fleeting connections. Without being cynical as to why it took nearly nine hours to tell a story of less than 300 pages, it is worth considering how effective the films added material to build a coherent six part story, from Unexpected Journey to Return of the King. 

The primary story of The Hobbit follows Bilbo Baggins as he aids Theron's company of Dwalves in reclaiming the Lonley Mountain from the dragon, Smaug. There are three additional subplots added to this: the white council's investigation of the necromancer, the elf-dwarf sexual tension, and the orcs' pursuit of Theron. The white council stuff sees Elderon, Sauraman and Gandriel return to the series to create a link to the LOTR trilogy. The elf-dwarf romance adds a romantic subplot but little to Bilbo's story (hell, it's not even clear if either Bilbo, Theron or Gandalf even know about it!) and allowed Peter Jackson to include Orlando Bloom again. The Orc subplot does enrich the battle scenes and provides the orcs chasing the company with some purpose. This subplot also has nothing to do with LOTR. 

The white council parts are essentially pointless and distract from the main story. For viewers it is nice to see familiar faces and, for those who pay attention, it is nice to see that they knew of Saurein'a return 60 years before Gandalf visited Frodo to get the One Ring (now there's a plot hole for you). But it is The Hobbit's version of including C3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars prequels. Familiar faces are fine but they create plot holes and actually take the audience out of the story. The distraction from the main story isn't a sign of good story telling - it's a sign of trying to serve too many masters. Even though The Battle of Five Armies is the shortest of the Middle Earth movies, it still spends time dealing with subplots that set up a separate trilogy - one that runs between nine and eleven hours depending on the versions you watch. Due to the excellent prologue in Fellowship of the Ring, there is little that needed to be set up anyway. The Easter egg in this case has developed into a significant number of extra scenes, none of which serve the story, and only serve to prolong the length of the film. (Someone there's even more for the extended additions!) Still, this is still better than Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which pacts so many Easter eggs and video game scenes into it that it has little, if any, connection to even Episode II, let alone the original trilogy it is a prequel to. 

Sequels have been pushed into this problem too. The need to include a larger story sees stories that full of characters with little time for the audience to connect to them. Iron Man 2 sunk from the need to include scenes fleshing out SHIELD and the Avengers, at the expense of their antagonists and sidekick dynamic. XMen: The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine both loaded themselves with characters and tried to fit into a larger story, creating plot holes and leaving themselves with little room to even tell their primary story well. It's worth noting that the First Class X-Men films, The Wolverine and Iron Man 3 cut down on the number of characters and subplots and told much tighter stories that ignored the overall continuity with a preference to telling their primary story as well as they can. 

A rare exception to all of this is the excellent Captain America: Winter Solider, mainly because its primary story is one that pushes the larger universe forward. For prequels, this just isn't possible. The audience already knows how it is going to end. Better off exploring a different part of the world, as X Men First Class and the Hobbit novel does, than telling a direct story that we know the resolution too (the Star Wars prequels). It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming Pan (a darker, grittier prequel to Peter Pan) handles these different demands.

In the end, whilst there are some cool moments for fans of the original triligies, prequels would be best if they kept the references to future stories to a minimum. Easter eggs are fine, but not when they don't serve their true master - the primary story they're trying to tell. I don't think the audience is even crying out for these parts of the story to be told - most likely they just want the story to be told well so they can lose themselves in another world for two (or three) hours.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Case for Relgation in AFL

Recently I've upset the odd friend with my references to the AFL needing a Division II. While it is intended to be deliberately provocative, there is some merit to include the possibility of splitting the AFL on a year-by-year basis so that we get a more even and (here's the buzz word) equitable competition.

How is introducing two division more equitable? The idea would be to play against teams of roughly equal standing. I wouldn't label each division numerically, but would go with Premiership Cup Division and Shield Division. Sell off naming rights for the Shield Division, and name the Shield after a significant figure, and you've already open up new revenue to distribute amongst those clubs. The Premiership Cup Division should be exclusive to Ch7.

How would the particulars work? I'm glad you asked!

The Split
The easy bit. For examples I'm going to use the 2012 season as a guide, mainly due to the Essendon fiasco last year compromising the make up of the bottom 10 teams.

After the season we would split the AFL into two divisions. The top 9 teams would be the Premiership Cup Division, with the bottom 9 comprising the Shield Division.
For example,  based on 2012, we would have:
  • Premiership Cup Division: Hawthorn, Adelaide, Sydney, Collingwood, West Coast, Geelong, Fremantle, North Melbourne.
  • Shield Division: St Kilda, Carlton, Essendon, Richmond, Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Melbourne, Gold Coast, GWS.
The Season Schedule (not a FIXture)
Team would play each team in their division twice (home and away) making for a 16 game schedule. This would enable teams to play against teams of roughly equal footing (though incidentally, several of the top Shield teams from the above list beat GWS by 90-100 points, and North lost their 2012 elimination final to West Coast by 100 points too, so it wouldn't be perfect). There is 4 games a week in each division with one bye.

The AFL could introduce additional games, and revenue, via one of the two following methods:
  • Two heritage or rivalry rounds - Teams would nominate two teams to play against from another division for historical reasons. In the above example, Essendon could nominate Collingwood and perhaps West Coast or North Melbourne. St Kilda might nominate Collingwood and Geelong as a grand final rematch. Since everyone would want to play Collingwood, the AFL would make these decisions. These games could be played for premiership points since every team gets the same number of games against someone in the other division.
  • A secondary 'knockout' competition - the NAB Cup. Teams play preliminary pre-season games for a 'seeding' in the knockout cup. The knockout cup would take place over four rounds throughout the season. Teams that are already out would get a bye that week. This would enable the AFL to schedule some of these rivalry games across divisions and create a longer season. 
Finals series 1 - Winning the Shield Division
After 16 games, the top four teams would play an elimination finals series over two weeks.
  • Week 1 - 1 v 4, 2 v 3.
  • Week 2 - Shield Grand Final: The winner plays off for the Shield. 

Finals series 2 - Winning the Premiership Cup Division 
After 16 games, the top six teams would play a final series in the following format:
  • Week 1 - Elimination Finals: 1, 2 get a bye. 3 v 6, 4 v 5.
  • Week 2 - Semi Finals: 1 v winner of 3 v 6, 2 v winner of 4 v 5
  • Week 3 - Grand final between winners of semi finals
Between the two divisions there are 10 teams involved in finals. From the Premiership Cup Division only the 7th placed team isn't involved in anything (see below for teams 8 & 9). You could have a playoff for 6 (the 'wild card' spot) between 6 and 7

Promotion/Relegation or Playoffs?
The grand finalist of the Shield Division play against teams 8 and 9 from the Premiership Cup Division. 9P v 1S, 8P v 2S. Winners are promoted, losers are relegated (or stay in the Shield Division). These games could be played as preludes to the Premiership Grand Final.
We could also just promote or relegate based on finishing position without the need for games between the two.

The Draft
The draft could still occur as is. Bottom teams from the Shield Division get top picks. Ideally it would be a lottery amongst the bottom five Shield Division teams to make tanking a less desirable option. I would, however, mandate four year contracts for first round picks. This would avoid the temptation for top picks to jump to Premiership Cup Division clubs after just two years.

The Benefits
  1. An equitable schedule. Teams play similar teams twice. Removes all confusion about the FIXture. Everyone plays everyone in their division twice (home and away).
  2. Less games for players minimum 16, with maybe a couple more - no more 'rest' listed next to big names and veteran players. No chance of top players playing 26 games (including finals). Teams get two byes a season.
  3. More teams involved in finals. 10 instead of 9. A wild card playoff in the Premiership Division between 6 and 7 would make this 11 teams.
  4. Teams playing against teams of a similar skill level (as noted previously this would never be perfect but it is a start).
The Drawbacks (and some responses)
  1. Missing out on some big drawing games. Using the basics of scheduling and the 2012 example, Essendon, Richmond and Carlton would not have played Collingwood in 2013, meaning all three and the AFL miss out on big crowds. There also would not have been a Showdown in Adelaide or a Battle of the Bridge in Sydney. (This has been addressed via the heritage or knockout cup suggestions.)
  2. Some teams get stuck in a division meaning there is a widening gap between big and small clubs.  (But isn't is the case already? When was the last time Melbourne played finals? When was the last time Hawthorn, Geelong, Sydney and Collingwood missed finals? At least if Melbourne managed to play more games against the likes of GWS, Bulldogs & Essendon - who they beat in 2012 - they might be a better chance of playing off for the Shield, even if they didn't get promoted.)
  3. Loss of revenue due to TV rights. Less games means less money. (Hence the suggestion for additional games that don't compromise the overall integrity of the competition).

 What do you think?