Anyone who’s ever applied for a business license or contested a traffic ticket can tell you that the law is incredibly complicated. It often doesn’t work the way we think it does, and since new laws get passed all the time, it keeps changing, too. Legal procedures are also notoriously bad at following narrative arcs, so it’s no surprise that a lot of law-based conflicts are contrived. However, no matter how understandable it is, it still hurts the story. Today, we look at five of these conflicts in the wild and see what we can learn from them.
1. Absolute Monarchy: Aladdin
Most of what we remember about Aladdin is the battle over who gets a magic lamp, and while that part is certainly important, the inciting conflict is based just as much on who Princess Jasmine should marry. The problem is that according to the law, Jasmine has to marry a prince by her next birthday, which is only in three days.
Naturally, Jasmine rejects all her royal suitors because they’re terrible. Later on, she meets a guy who actually interests her, but he’s the furthest thing from a prince. This leads us to the magical lamp plot and all its troubles for the kingdom. It’s pretty clear that no one is happy with the situation, not even Jasmine’s father, the Sultan, but what can any of them do?
Oh, that’s right, the Sultan can just change the law because this is an absolute monarchy. He does this at the end, and just like that, the conflict is solved. So…. why didn’t he do that earlier? There are a few likely explanations, but none of them fit what we’re shown onscreen.
It would make sense if there were social or political pressure stopping the Sultan from changing the law. But if that were the case, we’d expect some consequences for changing it, and there don’t seem to be any. Alternatively, this act could represent the Sultan changing his mind, but he didn’t seem to like the law at the beginning.
Finally, there’s the possibility that the Sultan just didn’t think of this until the very end. He is portrayed as more than a little dense. But in that case, we’d assume the much sharper Jasmine would have suggested it, since she was really not into this whole prince-marriage thing. Since there’s no consistent explanation, we’re left with a conflict that could have been solved from the start, but it wasn’t because the movie needed to happen. That’s the definition of contrived.
2. Unqualified Advocates: The Next Generation
Next, we take a look at a Star Trek episode that’s rightly praised for its fervent support of universal human* rights. I love The Measure of a Man. You probably do too, unless you’re Dr. Pulaski, in which case you’re still mad that Data insists on being addressed by his actual name.
The basic premise of this episode is a legal case to determine if Data has the same rights as any other citizen of the Federation. There are a lot of fascinating, in-depth analyses of the case out there, and the people making them are often actual lawyers, so I won’t be touching the substance of the case itself today.
Instead, we look at who’s arguing the case. Picard is named as defense attorney, and Riker is drafted to be the prosecutor. From a meta perspective, we know this is done to create conflict for Riker, as he has to argue that his friend Data isn’t a person. It’s also so that we can get some epic speeches from Patrick Stewart.* Unfortunately, from an in-character perspective, this is ridiculous for a number of reasons.
The first issue is that Riker immediately states he can’t argue the prosecution’s case because he doesn’t believe it. The judge, Captain Phillipa Louvois, tells him he has to anyway, and she’ll know if he’s not trying his hardest. That’s putting way too much pressure on Louvois’s Sense Motive skill. How is she supposed to tell the difference between Riker intentionally throwing the case and Riker just being a subpar lawyer? It’s not like she knows him particularly well.
But that pales in comparison to the real issue: Picard and Riker aren’t lawyers. The law is incredibly complicated, which is why you need professionals to argue it in court. They need to cite precedent and understand legal philosophies, to say nothing of following the court’s complicated procedures. Neither Picard nor Riker is remotely qualified to do this, so no one is getting adequate representation. You might as well ask two laypeople to work as particle physicists.
The excuse given is that Louvois doesn’t have any proper staff because her base is new, so she needs to recruit Picard and Riker. That doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny, though. Why is Louvois in such a hurry to do this right now? Our knowledge of Federation law is hazy at best, but in the US, if a hearing or trial can’t be carried out somewhere, the procedure is usually to call for a change of venue, not to half-ass the thing. Or they could have just waited for Starfleet to send some actual lawyers out there.
3. Evil Social Worker: Buffy
Season six is Buffy’s season of sadness, where everything seems to go wrong at once. In between the post-resurrection angst, magic addictions, ruined marriages, and gay burying, there’s also an episode where a social worker for California’s child welfare service tries to put Dawn into foster care. This highlights not only how strained Buffy and Dawn’s relationship has become, but also how they’re both still reeling from their mother’s death a season ago. It’s very sad, but also very contrived.
First, why is the social worker even there? The episode acts as if social workers just show up as a matter of course when a parent dies, but that’s not the case. Buffy is an adult, so there’s no inherent reason for the state to get involved in Dawn’s care. The other possible reason is that someone called child welfare services and reported that Dawn was in a dangerous situation, but that also seems unlikely.
There’s no reason anyone would legitimately think Dawn was in danger. She gets injured in a car crash, but kids get in accidents all the time and no one calls the state on them. Her grades slip, but again, that’s just something that happens with teenagers. Perhaps Dawn’s kleptomania is meant to be involved, but that doesn’t get revealed until several episodes later. If someone knew she went out slaying, that would be something, but the entire show is predicated on the conceit that humans don’t know about monsters.
Alternatively, a villain might have called a social worker just to mess with Buffy. That does sound like something the Trio would do. But if that were the case, the episode would have shown us. It’s also unclear what such a villain would hope to accomplish, since it’s incredibly unlikely that any social worker would recommend re-homing Dawn.
This brings us to the even more contrived part of this conflict: the social worker wanting to take Dawn away. The US foster care system is both underfunded and overburdened. Real social workers only place children into it if they absolutely have to. Even in situations where state intervention is needed, social workers do everything they can to keep the child at home. It’s both inaccurate and insulting to portray social workers as child-abducting gremlins.
As a final caveat, there are instances where marginalized children are taken from their homes because of systematic prejudice.* However, Buffy is white and comfortably middle class, so it’s unlikely that would apply to her. There’s a brief insinuation that the social worker thinks Buffy is a lesbian, so homophobia could be involved, but even that is stretching it.
4. Mind Crimes: Voyager
Jumping back to Star Trek, we have the Voyager episode Random Thoughts. This time, the conflict focuses on B’Elanna Torres, who gets arrested for being angry. This week’s aliens are so susceptible to the thoughts of others that they can fly into a murderous rage because a visitor stubbed their toe. As a result, all violent thought is illegal on their planet.
Star Trek has a lot of contrived legal conflicts, but this one is my favorite because it’s absurd from so many angles. First, there’s the entire premise. If these aliens are really that vulnerable to other people’s thoughts, why do they allow visitors at all? Why isn’t there at least some warning before people visit? This can’t be the first time such a problem has arisen. These aliens would probably conduct all their diplomacy over subspace if face-to-face contact is that dangerous.
Second, there’s the punishment Torres faces: having the angry memory in question erased from her mind. What purpose does this serve? It doesn’t reduce the likelihood of Torres having more violent thoughts in the future, nor is it a significant punishment. It doesn’t fall into either the punitive or restorative model of justice, and it certainly won’t act as a deterrent against anyone having angry thoughts in the future, since those are involuntary. The only reason this is even a problem for Torres is that the procedure includes a risk of giving her brain damage. Maybe the brain damage is the real punishment, which would be incredibly evil, but in that case, we’d expect it to be the main consequence rather than a possible side effect.
That brings us to the third leg of this contrived trifecta: Captain Janeway going along with it. Instead of breaking Torres out and warping away from this horrible planet, she puts all her chips on Tuvok finding someone else to pin the blame on. To be fair, this isn’t the first time a Starfleet captain has let their crew suffer under terrible alien laws, but it never made sense before and it doesn’t make sense now. Starfleet’s stance of respecting local laws would be a laudable one in a setting with rational laws, but not so much in a galaxy where aliens will fry your brain for getting mad.
And even if we accept Starfleet’s silly and inconsistent policy, there’s no reason Janeway would hold to it. This is just a few episodes after she gave the Borg bioweapons, so it’s not like she’s some Prime Directive stickler. These aliens don’t have anything Voyager especially needs, either. They don’t even seem particularly powerful, but for some reason, Janeway is happy to let them give her chief engineer brain damage.
5. No Self Defense Allowed: My Hero Academia
This high-action anime is all about young heroes training to get their certifications so they can fight superpowered crime, and that sounds reasonable at first. In a world with superheroes, regulating how and when powers can be used makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to law enforcement. However, in the show’s second season, we quickly learn how contrived these laws are.
It starts when several of our protagonists come across a villain named Stain as he’s about to kill someone. Naturally, they step in, and while it’s a difficult battle, they’re eventually able to capture him. Good job all around. But not so fast, because afterward they find out they’re in real trouble.
It turns out they’re not allowed to use their powers in any way that injures another person because they don’t have their hero licenses yet. No exception is made for the fact that they were saving another person from immediate death or that the situation quickly became one of self-defense. The only way they avoid getting into serious trouble is that the police agreed to lie about what happened.
Let’s unpack this. We’re told that in this setting, no one is allowed to use their powers violently, not even in the most clear-cut self-defense case you could possibly ask for. This sounds like someone took “duty to retreat” laws to a straw-man extreme. In real life, those laws are designed to prevent situations from escalating, but Stain was already using deadly force, meaning there was nowhere left to escalate. So, if someone tries to kill you in this setting, you apparently have to let them.
Not only is this ridiculous, it gets retconned a season later, when our heroes are allowed to defend themselves with no serious repercussions. The only explanation I can think of is that the writers were trying to depict the characters getting in trouble because one of them went out looking for Stain, but that’s not what the dialogue says. Even if it were the case, the other two characters were only looking for their friend, not getting into a fight on purpose.
At best, this is simply a contrived conflict designed to put a damper on what should be a moment of triumph for the main characters. It’s not clear to me why the writers would want to do that, but it matches the way other episodes turn out. The whole sequence also plays into one of the show’s more sinister themes: that society would be better off if superheroes were allowed to do whatever they wanted.
The cops who explain the situation quickly clarify that they hate this law and think it’s terrible, right before they offer to falsify their reports. In other episodes, we’re told that the press just really has it in for superheroes, and that public opinion will turn against them at the drop of a hat. This all has the hallmarks of police propaganda. First, My Hero Academia denigrates the press, a traditional check on police power. Then we have several episodes that portray people who don’t like law enforcement as sheep who are only following the latest trend. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but it’s upsetting either way.
Previous entries on this list got here because the writers wanted a type of legal drama that their story didn’t support, so they cut corners and ended up with contrived conflict. My Hero Academia is the first one that feels like its problem is a feature, not a bug. This is yet another reason why it’s important to understand how the law actually works before you sit down to write a legal conflict. Not doing so means you risk including both contrived conflict and potentially harmful messages.
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