July 24th, 2012 | Published in commentary
This entire post is going to be full of Warehouse 13 spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the season 4 premiere yet (and plan to) you may want to ignore it. Then again, it may save you some disappointment. And if you don’t watch the show, don’t worry, this post is about storytelling, not limited to a single story.
Last night, I watched the season 4 premiere of Warehouse 13. At the end of the previous season, the warehouse was destroyed. It looked like the only way forward would be to rebuild (there had been 12 before, and the show had already indicated who would be the new warehouse protector). Instead, the entire episode was devoted to finding a way to undo what had happened. Fair enough, it would have been out of character for the warehouse agents to do anything else. What was disappointing was that they succeeded.
So now the show is left with what? A secret (Artie can’t tell anyone that he turned back time), a mysterious order dedicated to protecting the time-reversy device (can’t say that I particularly care), and possibly Claudia gone off to the dark side. And that is supposed to be a better story than having to deal with the loss of all of their work, having to rebuild something from scratch?
Stories should do one of two things, they should either reflect the world as it is or reflect the world as it ought to be (and I use these terms loosely, I think that the Lord of the Rings stands up to this test, as does Star Wars). Stories in which mistakes and catastrophes can be fixed after the fact fail this test, we do not live in a world in which we can undo our actions (outside of a computer, that is) and I don’t think that I would want to live in a world in which I could rely on a god on a crane.
There are, of course, reasons to have an undo button in your story, but I don’t think that any of them have to do with quality. Even if you do manage it relatively well, it creates doubt in your audience. If a catastrophe can be magically undone, why should your audience believe you the next time something happens? In the end, it allows you to do an over the top climax once. After that, your audience will lose faith in your story, and the only way to fix that is to have bad things happen that can’t be undone. Of course, your audience will expect things to be undone and if you let that beloved character die they will feel betrayed.
So if you are a writer (or TV executive, since I doubt that Warehouse 13′s writers had any say about the overall direction of the season) go ahead and destroy the world, just be prepared to build on the ruins.