No story can perfectly mirror reality, especially stories with lots of speculative elements. Sometimes, for a story to work, the audience must accept certain conceits. In X-Men, we accept that mutants are persecuted for their powers, even though in real life they’d be rock stars. In the Dresden Files, we accept that wizards don’t get involved in human conflicts, even to save their own people from hardship. These conceits don’t make sense when analyzed logically, but we agree to them so we can enjoy the story. They allow us to achieve the much-vaunted suspension of disbelief.
Occasionally, a story will violate a conceit we’ve already accepted. This may be done deliberately as a form of lampshading, or it might be sloppy storytelling. Whatever the reason, it’s much harder to accept a conceit after the story breaks it. Consider these five examples.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Guns
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fights are settled with punches and kicks. For a really serious battle, the slayer might bring out a broadsword. In a modern setting, this immediately raises the question: why don’t they use guns? Even if guns can’t actually kill a vampire, they can certainly cause more damage than a kick or a punch. Vampires have even more motivation to use guns, since slayers aren’t bulletproof.
There’s no logical way to explain Buffy’s lack of firearms.* At the same time, the show would not work if the characters were packing heat. The melee combat allows for all the witty banter that Joss Whedon is known for, to say nothing of the show’s heavy emphasis on magical blades and mystic training sessions. The light mood probably wouldn’t survive a hail of bullets, either.
And so the audience agrees to accept that guns don’t exist in the Buffyverse. Or if they do, they’re not useful for anything related to the supernatural. This conceit allows everyone to enjoy all the clever fight scenes without any worry about guns. At least it does until the show blatantly violates it by putting guns in the spotlight.
The most infamous firearms incident on Buffy is the murder of Tara, but it’s hardly the only one. Earlier in the show, Xander makes good use of an M16 against a horde of monsters, and because there’s no kill like overkill, Buffy uses a rocket launcher to destroy a demon. At one point, a tech-savvy vampire even mocks one of his elders for using a sword when he could be using a submachine gun. And that’s not considering the spin off, Angel, where guns are everywhere.
All these guns make it difficult to take the melee fighting seriously. It was hard enough to suspend our disbelief without the show making it harder!
2. Harry Potter: Quidditch Safety
When Quidditch is first explained in the Sorcerer’s Stone, it seems like an absurdly dangerous game. Players zoom around on flying brooms with only the strength of their grip to keep them from falling to their deaths. Even discounting the danger of losing one’s grip, the game has two bludgers that specifically try to knock players off their brooms. Games are held even when it’s pouring rain, making the brooms that much harder to hold on to. And they let twelve-year-olds play this game! How is Hogwarts not losing students?
After the initial disbelief, a solution is obvious: safety charms. The wizarding world has a spell for absolutely everything; surely they could craft something to slow a quidditch player’s fall. That sounds like a logical first step for a game where falling off one’s broom is not only possible but expected.
This explanation holds up until the first quidditch game, when Quirrell tries to kill Harry by hexing him to fall off his broom. Apparently there are no safety charms after all. Worse, Quirrell’s plan is made to look like an accident, which indicates that a player falling is a common event. That’s pretty grim.
If that weren’t enough, the idea of safety charms is further disproved later in the series, when Harry actually is knocked off his broom by a dementor. The only reason he doesn’t splat on the ground is that Dumbledore was in the stands with a slow-fall spell ready. In fact, Dumbledore’s spell makes the issue even harder to ignore, because apparently wizards could implement safety procedures, and they just don’t.
Of course, we all know the reason quidditch doesn’t have safety charms: drama. Harry plays a lot of quidditch, and it’s much easier to put him in exciting danger if there’s no magical net to save him. But sometimes writing a good story means choosing the difficult path over the easy one.
3. Supergirl: Punching Crime
Like many superhero stories, the TV show Supergirl features a character with amazing powers. The titular Supergirl is very active in defending Earth from alien threats, but she also intercedes against human criminals. Whether it’s mugging, hostage taking, or bank robbery,* Supergirl is there to save the day.
Anyone who understands crime knows this is a terrible idea. Using someone as powerful as Supergirl to stop street crime is like deploying cruise missiles to kill a fly. She ignores police, causes an incredible amount of property damage, and contaminates evidence without a second thought. And then there are legal issues to consider. Supergirl is the very definition of excessive force, and her X-ray vision probably constitutes an unreasonable search. If Supergirl really wanted to reduce crime, she could spend some time turning a crank to generate free power, thus reducing poverty, a primary driver of street crime.
But for the purposes of this show, we accept the conceit that National City needs Supergirl to punch crime. That is, until an episode late in season two. The episode starts like any other, with Supergirl flying in to free some hostages, but this time there’s a twist: Detective Maggie Sawyer, an important side-character, is angered by Supergirl’s antics.
Later, at an incredibly uncomfortable dinner, Maggie launches into a tirade. She goes on about how Supergirl shouldn’t be intervening in normal crimes because her methods disrupt investigations and are likely to escalate a situation. This is awkward because she’s absolutely right, but acknowledging that undermines the show’s entire premise.
After the angry dinner argument, the episode handily shows how right Maggie is. During a delicate investigation, Supergirl loses her cool and nearly assults a prisoner, making him clam up and refuse to cooperate. Maggie rightly berates Supergirl for this, but it rings a little false. In previous episodes, many characters including Maggie have beaten up prisoners, and it’s been treated as fine.
The episode ends with both Maggie and Supergirl supposedly learning to understand each other’s point of view, but it never actually addresses Supergirl’s actions. It’s not as if she stops going after mundane criminals in later episodes. For the sake of one episode’s drama, the writers sabotaged their most important premise.
4. The X-Files: Skepticism and Belief
In The X-Files, it’s understood that Mulder will believe in anything, no matter how sparse the evidence is, and that Scully will never believe anything without the most concrete proof, no matter what other weird things she’s seen.
Logically, this dynamic makes no sense. Mulder is an intelligent agent; he should know that aliens, cryptids, and the supernatural aren’t hiding under every rock. At the same time, it’s not long before Scully has seen just as many strange things as Mulder, and she should be past the point of knee-jerk denials.
As little sense as it makes, the Scully/Mulder dynamic is vital to the show’s charm. It’s endearing to watch Mulder frantically try to explain that something weird is going on, only for Scully to give him an incredulous look. That’s just how the characters act, and we love them for it.
Until the episode Beyond the Sea,* anyway. In this adventure, Scully and Mulder encounter a convict who claims he can read minds. This is still in the first season, but even by then, they’ve seen enough that telepathy is par for the course, so it’s a surprise when Mulder is extremely skeptical. He insists on subjecting the convict to tests, which the convict fails, and Mulder declares him a fraud.
That’s very logical thinking, but it’s completely unlike Mulder. He sees the supernatural everywhere, and counter-evidence has never swayed him before. The episode tries to explain this by saying that the convict is a serial killer that Mulder helped catch, but that isn’t particularly convincing, considering all the other factors Mulder ignores.
Even weirder, Scully is convinced the convict can indeed read minds. She believes this because of a psychic vision she has in his presence. This change makes even less sense than Mulder’s. If Scully was so easily convinced, she’d believe in everything. Then Mulder lectures her about believing in supernatural phenomena without proof. Not only does this make Mulder seem like a jerk, but it’s incredibly inconsistent. He should be celebrating that just once, Scully believes without needing a mountain of proof.
By changing the character dynamics without a strong motivation, The X-Files highlights the cracks in its own foundation. We’ve already accepted that Mulder and Scully don’t behave like real people; don’t make it harder for us!
5. Star Wars: Gray Jedi
In Star Wars, the dark side is both evil and seductive. It’s so evil that anyone who aligns with it can be killed without remorse, and it’s so seductive that it tempts even paragons of virtue like Luke Skywalker. The darkside is like cancer with a sales pitch so good that people are lining up to smoke cigarettes.
Under closer inspection, this feels a little hokey. In real life, evil rarely announces itself with black clothes and red lightsabers. The dark side’s seduction is also forced. Luke has no conceivable reason to join Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. That is, besides “mind control,” which is never a satisfactory explanation.
Despite any critical-thinking pieces we might write, most of us can still enjoy Star Wars because we accept that the dark side is what the films claim. It might not make sense, but it’s a necessary entry fee for one of scifi’s greatest franchises. But then the extended universe had to invent Gray Jedi.
A Gray Jedi* is exactly what it sounds like: a Force user who walks the line between light and dark. They appear mostly in video games and tie-in novels. As presented, they are actually just Light Jedi who have figured out how to use the dark-coded powers like Force lightning without falling to the dark side. If that’s possible, why doesn’t everyone do it?
More irritating is the basic idea of being able to “walk the line” between dark and light. The dark side is evil. We’re not talking about roguish acts that Han Solo might commit, but full on, puppy-killing evil. Saying that Gray Jedi can have a “balance” of the dark side is like saying they only kill a puppy once a week. That’s still terrible, even if other people kill a puppy every day.
And of course, Gray Jedi are immune to the dark side’s powerful seduction. That’s easily the most terrifying aspect of the dark side, and they render it completely impotent – a heavy cost indeed just to have some overly-edgy Force user throwing lightning bolts.
Stories occasionally get away with violating their own conceit, but each time they do, it’s harder for the audience to accept. Even the most heavily fact-checked story requires some suspension of disbelief, and making that harder is never a good idea.
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