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I foresee… a hole in the plot

I’ve never been that fond of fortune tellers in fantasy tales – joyless, smug creeps the lot of ‘em.  But recently I’ve been pondering on their eternal popularity with writers.

Lately there have been a lot a lot of seers in Dr Who. We had the Ood telling the Doctor that his song was ending (Planet of the Ood) and then the lady bus passenger saying ‘he will knock four times’ (Planet of the Dead), likewise predicting the end of the tenth doctor .

This was followed by Dalek Caan foretelling the future (The Stolen Earth): onto this a major storyline was hung. Now, in the latest tale, (The End of Time) even the Time Lords were relying on the ramblings of a wibbling semi-articulate hag.

You’ve seen it coming: I think this fortune-teller gag can be overdone. In Planet of the Dead it seemed the psychic was used to add phony suspense to a story that mainly involved a 20-minute bus delay in a desert. In The End of Time, the mad soothsayer was there to lead us blindfold through some of the larger holes in the plot.

Why are soothsayers always mad? Aha – because if they were sane they could give us boringly clear answers about exactly what is going to happen. No – the gifted seer must give a riddle, a glimpse, something vague enough to drive the plot, without spoilering it.

Prophecies are irresistible to fantasy authors, and barely a trilogy goes by without one.

Much of Phillip Pullman’s classic ‘His Dark Materials’ hangs on the prediction device.  It is foretold that the heroine Lyra’s actions will change the universe, so this leads the forces of good and evil to zero in on her. In fact, without the heroine having to do anything to earn their attention (yet), she can be visited by a panoply of weird beings, lining themselves up for and against her.

It’s a bit like getting married. Without doing anything to deserve it, you – the hero – are suddenly caught up in the eye of ancient enmities that defy comprehension. In fact I would bet the whole of His Dark Materials was based on one wedding reception Philip Pullman attended.

Sometimes it does work beautifully. The great CBBC serial ‘Shoebox Zoo’ had heroine Marnie becoming the ‘Chosen One’ (yes, I know, but it sounds good when you watch it, honest), and so immediately she is on the visiting list of the local forces of good and evil. This formula is a great time-saver. It rushes us straight into a deep-seeming plot without any tortuous build-up. In the right hands it is magical. In the wrong hands it is a lazy mish-mash of phony motives and hollow, high-sounding bilge.

Getting back to that overdone phrase: ‘The One, or ‘The Chosen one’. It’s an effective method of hyping up the importance of your hero (without them actually having done anything, remember). Also, it works for the reader, since many of us secretly feel that we are ‘the one’, so we can devour the book, thinking it’s about us.

I think my favourite prediction malarkey comes in Asterix and the Soothsayer. Here Goscinny and Uderzo give this ragged tribe the nose-tweaking they deserve – if you have never seen it, I’m sure it will put a smile on your face. In fact, (portentous look, starts scribbling symbols on his own face in biro) I… KNOW IT!

But back on the Time Lord planet , Ithoughtithadbeenburntalready, here comes the Great Seeing One.

Time Lord: Tell us, oh mad one, what actually IS happening in this diabolical storyline we are caught up in?’

Great Seeing One: “I see a man in a blue box, fighting another man… wait, it’s… it’s his ENEMY! And they are on a planet – wait – one word approacheth my gaze… one word – rhymes with “mirth”! Starts with ‘ear’ – oh come on, surely even you non-seers can guess it now…! “

Happy new year

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About Glenn Dakin

Glenn Dakin is a writer, cartoonist and editor. He is author of the Candle Man series of fantasy novels for Egmont. His best-known comics are Abe - an autobiographical strip (Top Shelf);Temptation (Penguin Books and Active Images); Spider-Man heroes and Villains (Eaglemoss);the Rockpool Files (With Phil Elliott, Slave Labor/Marvel UK); Robot Crusoe (Funday TImes); Plasmer (Marvel UK); Clan Destine (Marvel USA).

8 responses to “I foresee… a hole in the plot

  1. John T ⋅

    Why do Time Lords need a soothsayer anyway? Aren’t they, y’know, the Lords of Time? I mean, if they want to peek at absolutely anything in the whole of creation can’t they just… have a look? Even for an insane sadistic Time Lord with a metal claw (and prosthetic dolphin teeth in one shouty scene) this is surely a big embarrassment. I probably need to watch the episode again but I can’t face it.

  2. Talking about Dr Who, (which we all love, of course) here’s a list of stories that promised stuff that didn’t materialise…
    1. The Doctor’s Daughter (She wasn’t)
    2. The Next Doctor (He wasn’t)
    3. The Planet of the Dead (Never saw them)
    4. The End of Time Part One (It wasn’t)
    5. The End of TIme Part Two (Still wasn’t).

  3. Nick

    The tenth Doctor was great! Sadly, his final story really wasn’t. But maybe he’ll turn up again in this new ‘Causality’ show.

  4. Prophecies are OK when they’re used sparingly. ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ has a small amount of prophecy near the beginning, when the children first reach Narnia. Mostly it helps to speed the plot along; it explains why the characters in Narnia know why the children are important, and eliminates the need to introduce and explain. ‘Lord of the Rings’ has hardly any prophecies, at least that are shared with the hobbits (who are largely the readers’ stand-ins). There’s Boromir’s dream, which brings him to Rivendell, and I guess the episode of the Paths of the Dead is based on a sort of prophecy, but I can’t think of much else.

    The Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, are LOADED with references to some prophecy about ‘The Chosen One’, and it becomes very tiresome. One of the Harry Potter novels revolves around some half-baked prophecy, which by the end turns out not to be very important at all. Overusing prophecies turns a story into a kind of exercise in nitpicking and rock-turning, and the big picture suffers.

    I think it would be interesting to read a study of the use of mirrors in literature, particularly fantasy literature. It goes back a long way, and all the examples I can think of: LOTR, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, even vampire tales, seem to agree that a vision in a mirror always tells the truth.

    • Nice to hear from you! The Daleks had some weird ability to time travel via mirrors back in Patrick Troughton’s day! I invented a character for Marvel Comics once, called Myror – she was a mutant who reflected back people’s expectations -if you thought she was an enemy, she’d looked evil – if you expected her to be nice she was a vision of loveliness. But Alan Davis came back on the title (ClanDestine) and decreed that everything I had written was ‘just a dream’!
      And so it was.

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