Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Lots of people say they are never surprised, but what they usually mean is that they're not really paying attention. They just aren't concentrating on anything hard enough for surprise to have any impact: they're the kind of people who just shrugged when stuff happened in Lost. "Hm," they say. "A polar bear. Wonder if my Pot Noodle's ready yet?"

I am not easy to surprise, because I am a writer. Plot twists are bread and butter for the likes of us, so it took me about ten minutes of The Sixth Sense to figure out three theories of what was happening to Bruce Willis, of which the second turned out to be the case. I hated that film, not because of the twist per se but because it was a film with nothing but a twist: a trick shot, in essence, and not an especially good one - that kind of thing is best kept in short stories or Tales Of The Unexpected, not entire movies. That people were astonished by it still makes my teeth grind. A popular measure of animal intelligence is whether or not they can imagine or deduce the existence of an object they can't directly sense - hide a ball under a cup, and see if your cat realises the ball is still there - and the inability of most people to imagine anything more than two lines of dialogue away apalls me.

I have been surprised three times this month, which is unusual post-thirty. Life should surprise more often than fiction, true, but there's a reason why stories follow the structure they do: they are taken from life, gestated in experience. Stories are like life and life is like stories, with the same logic and repeating patterns.

No life experience could have prepared me for surprise number one: that the remake of St Trinians is actually very good. I was expecting the worst but out of a sense of duty felt obliged to watch the thing on rental, having grown up with Saturday morning repeats of the Alistair Sim originals (yes, yes, I am very old). The trailers made it out to be a sub-American Pie soft-porn comedy but in fact it's a very old-fashioned caper, sticking surprisingly closely to the plot of The Belles Of St Trinians, upon which it is based, but modernised in a thoughtful and sensible way. There are some smutty moments, but only smutty, just as the original films were when dealing with the older girls, suggestive without being OTT. It's almost a family film, a traditional save-the-school antihero tale, and endearingly warmhearted in its way. Even Russell Brand fails to annoy, somehow.

Surprise number two: poker turns out to be fun. Like running, poker is something I have tried and failed several times to enjoy before finally succeeding: like American Football and NASCAR, it was a videogame version that finally clinched it. Million Dollar Poker is a Java game for mobiles, a somewhat new experience for me as I've never before this month had a phone that could properly cope with Java games - the platform, restricted as it is in processing power, seems to bring out the long-buried talent of programmers and designers to optimise and innovate rather than blackmail hardware manufacturers into increasing their spec again. Mobile gaming is oddly reminiscent of the Spectrum scene of the late eighties in that way: shame console games aren't similarly constrained, at least not yet. The last year of a console's life is always the most accomplished, unless your name is GameCube. Anyway, I intend to progress to online poker on my PC once I can persuade my broadband to work properly (at the moment it drops packets like a postman with Alzheimers) and possibly bankrupt myself in a glorious car crash of gambling and bourbon. That's the way a man should live.

Third surprise, and the biggest, was the Doctor Who cliffhanger. Russell Davies has a talent for how-the-hell-is-he-going-to-get-out-of-that-one season finales anyway, being one of the precious few writers who I can't second-guess, but to have such a biggie and keep it all secret until the finale was not only a surprise, but the most exciting thing on TV in years. It gave me - and, apparently, the rest of the UK, or at least the most intelligent 9.8 million of us - that wonderful agony of To Be Continued, the true cliffhanger that classic Who used to do so well in the days before giving away future plots became a marketing tactic. I have loved every minute of the new Who since it returned, but that was the first time it genuinely made me feel like a kid again.

1 comment:

Kavey said...

I think RTD has done an incredible job in resurrecting Dr Who so fabulously. Incredible.

But usually, the episodes he has scripted himself are, in my opinion, much weaker plots than those by my favourite writer, Moffat.

The penultimate episode of the series was, I think, his best ever. Utterly unexpected and very exciting. The last episode was good too but it was part 1 that I thought was particularly strong.

I also really loved the way he brought various past companions (and their families and friends) as well as the Torchwood team and Sarah Jane and son into the story.

As for surprise in general, it may well be a consequence of my inferior intellect (though I do sometimes spot plot-twists in advance) but I'm frequently surprised in life.

Usually pleasantly so, but then again, that's one of the things that makes life exciting - it's unpredictability!