A quick sidebar on Revolution, the new NBC show that premiered Monday night and that caused this thought process to start. The name to keep in mind is not JJ Abrams, whom the ads during the Olympic Games touted. It’s not even Jon Favreau, who directed the pilot and executive produces. Revolution will sink or swim based on what creator/writer/showrunner Eric Kripke (of Supernatural fame) does with it. It’s his baby. And like Supernatural, it features a cast of good-looking people traversing the American landscape searching for someone while encountering all sorts of dangers. In Supernatural, it was looking for Dad while hunting monsters. In Revolution, it’s looking for Brother while avoiding the post-apocalyptic threats. Oh, and there’s a MacGuffin involved – I’m guessing that was Abrams’ contribution.
Whether the show evolves from its stock tropes or is sunk by the them, only time and Nielsen ratings will tell. Kripke has shown himself capable of evolving stock ideas into something unique. That isn’t necessarily what I’m interested in discussing here.
The show is but the latest in modern post-apocalyptic television, following other recent shows like The Walking Dead and Falling Skies. Some dime-store sociologists might consider this fascination with the end of the world new (a possible reflection of post-War on Terror fears and apprehensions), but such feelings have been with us for a long, long time. After all, the Norse were telling stories of Ragnarok thousands of years ago. From H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley to Rod Serling, George Romero and Stephen King, the idea of the “End of the World” and what comes after is a well-worn road for some of the most creative people on our planet. It’s led to some of the most famous and popular works of fiction ever made.
The unfortunate side effect of all that creative work is that it has led to many tropes becoming stereotypes. In fact, the whole road to the post-apocalypse is a string of stereotypes now that anyone can easily follow:
1. Disaster: The aliens arrive. The zombies arise. The pandemic spreads. The power goes out. The nukes go off. The asteroid hits. The machines strike. Whatever the agent of civilization’s demise, it is the trigger point for upending the rules of our world and creating the stage for the new world.
2. Demolition: It doesn’t matter what anyone tries to do, all of our modern advances go the way of the dodo. Our social, political, economical and martial structures collapse. Governments from the most local to the most powerful fail. The social contract that citizens have with each other crashes down and we resort to total violence to survive.
3. Aftermath: The post-apocalyptic world arises. Society has fallen down to its most basic of levels – small communities that huddle together in the new landscape trying to scratch a meager living. The weak are prey to either stronger forces or to roving bands of thieves and butchers – think either Tom Savini’s biker gang from Dawn of the Dead or Lord Humongous and his crew from The Road Warrior. More often than not, whoever remains fights for the one key resource that has gone missing – oil, water, soil, food, knowledge, women, etc.
4a. Rebirth: There is a potential for a new civilization to arise from the old one, but it requires either the return of the missing ingredient (knowledge, power, oil) or the rebuilding of a new society that has learned from the mistakes of the old one. Movies like The Road Warrior, The Book of Eli and Wall-E hint at a new human civilization rising out of the ashes of the old one.
4b. Survival: Humanity is doomed and all you can do is try to live every day. The survivors aren’t interested in bringing civilization back or lack the ability or know-how to make it happen. Instead this is about how everything has gone to hell and the demons are taking orders. Think of movies like The Road, In the Mouth of Madness or 28 Weeks Later.
Here’s the problem with that storyline: It’s become cliché by now. People take parts of Dawn of the Dead, a bit of The War of the Worlds, plenty of The Road Warrior and The Terminator and we can all recognize what it is without too much trouble. Look at movies like Waterworld, the last few Resident Evil films, the last Terminator flick or shows like Falling Skies and Revolution. I’ll grant you that they’re more interested in seeing how their characters are challenged by their situation, but there is nothing new being added to the stew. No new ideas coming down the line. When you consider that there are endless possibilities to touch upon here, it is amazing. After all, Planet of the Apes wasn’t a post-apocalyptic movie till the very end scene. Night of the Living Dead wasn’t about the end of the world either.
Where is the world where humanity lives on inside computer programs? Or redesigns itself as machines? Where is the New Earth where humanity has developed the ability to glide upwards to cities in the clouds? Where are our damn insect overlords?!
Let’s go back to Revolution as an example. The show tells us that humanity’s power grids and anything requiring electricity – computers, autos, planes, electric razors – have all fallen and never came back up. To some that may mean the end of everything, but to me it says “What happened to steam engines? Locomotives? Coal or wood?” Knocking out our power grids doesn’t destroy civilization. It simply knocks it back to the 1850s – a relatively small step backwards considering where humanity stands currently.
And does knocking out power mean the end of our federal or state governments? As far as I can tell, it would end the military industrial complex as we currently have it – no tanks, planes or aircraft carriers. But the soldiers on the ground are still around. And the sailors and Coast Guard remain. So we go back to the days of wind-powered navies and marching armies with state National Guards acting as the de facto protectors of state borders while police go back to being old school sheriffs a la Wild West. Sure, some types of criminals would thrive in this new environment (I’m thinking Han Solo smuggler types or Hannibal Lecter serial killers), but would it be all wild hordes and gangs roaming the highways? I’m not so sure.
In the Anabasis, Xenophon describes how his band reach the shores of the Tigris river and camp in the ruins of an ancient and vast city. The walls are larger than he’s ever seen in his life and the streets vast. He knows that the Persians (his enemy) tried to take it and failed but were later successful when the sun was blotted out from the sky for days, forcing every inhabitant to flee the city. The city Xenophon had stumbled upon was the ruined Assyrian capital, Nineveh, hundreds of years after that empire’s collapse. I bring this up because to the Assyrians who lived through the fall of their empire, it was the apocalypse. It likely felt like the end of the world.
There’s also a larger point regarding the historical example of Nineveh. Fiction is often a great way to analyze and test out our hypotheses over society. We see it today in action in the various “zombie apocalypse” games and events and the various “doomsday preppers” that have become popular on TV networks. Anyone who lived through the 80s can remember what watching “The Day After” did to their psyche. (Honestly, who didn’t stockpile canned goods for weeks afterwards?) We use our fiction to express our fears and flesh out both our dreams and our nightmares.
Is it any surprise that, as petroleum has become more vital to our world, we got movies like Mad Max and video games like Fallout? Or that the fear of our growing dependence on technology has led to such classics as The Terminator and The Matrix? No, this is normal. Our world expands and our fears expand with it. Fiction is often the vanguard of our awareness over a concern. It leads and then our knowledge base is forced to amass more information to properly assuage our fears.
But if this is the case, then we should hope that our fiction creators are interested in more than just giving us the same old, same old. Push the envelope. Think higher and bigger and deeper and newer. Yes, some of these cliché will work in any environment – we, after all, will always need food, clothing, shelter, medicine and human companionship. But don’t borrow heavily from them or you can rob yourself and your audience of the ability to discern new and stronger ideas.