Well, it’s Weekly Geeky Question time, and we’re up to Week #49–with the end of 2018 approaching more rapidly than any of us are prepared to deal with. My Friend Rod is back with another question, and this time it’s about one of my favorite things, which is story structure. What Rod wants to know is,,,
What are some of the most disappointing story payoff’s that I have ever seen?
As always, there are a whole range of things this could refer to. Usually, when you are talking about a story “paying off”, what you mean is that you get to see or read or listen to some particular part of a story that you’ve been expecting. The storyteller has taken you through a bunch of preparation and development, with the promise being extended, in a manner of speaking, that something cool will happen. Indeed, part of the reason we’re even paying attention is to see that cool thing, whether it be the fall of the empire, or the murderer revealed, or the lovers kiss.
Sometimes this is done really really well, and sometimes its bad. And that disappointment comes for all different reasons. Here some of the ones I thought of, some in great detail and some in broad strokes, depending on how irked I am about them. I chose eleven examples, because that’s how many I could think of.
Warning: given the nature of the subject, there are both spoilers and irritable ranting ahead, in spades.
Lost – Flash Sideways
Random, Illogical Payoff = Bad Payoff
There was no way we were going into this post without talking about Lost (I just spent three blogposts talking about how I’d have changed the show) so we might as well get it out of the way.
Although there was a lot on Lost that was really clever, there were giant areas of disappointment as well. Opinions will vary on this, but I found one particular development to be the worst. All through the final season of the show, a lot of time was taken up with what came to be known as the “Flash Sideways”, where we watched all of our main characters living in what appeared to be an alternate universe, one in which the Island wasn’t around for the plane to crash on. As things went on, it became clear that this wasn’t the case, but the true nature of the “flash-sideways” remained a mystery until the closing minutes of the last episode…
…when we discovered that actually, the whole thing was a kind of a shared purgatory in which all of the main characters gathered together after they died (no matter when they died) in order to hang out before they were ready to “move on.” Supposedly, the purgatory was built around the cast finding each other because their time on the island had been the most important time in their lives. But it’s hard to find the logic in this.
If the time on the Island was the most important time in everyone’s lives, then why did the purgatory so deliberately exclude the island at all? Why, randomly, were Miles and Sawyer now police officers, and Jack and Juliet ex-spouses, and Sayid so focused on Shannon, a woman he knew only briefly, as opposed to Nadia who had been his motivation for the rest of the series? One felt we had just wasted about 2/5 of every episode of the season on storylines that literally meant nothing. This was especially annoying considering how many other more relevant questions the show could have spent time answering.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
No Payoff = Bad Payoff
Next Generation had less serialized elements then later Star Trek series, but it was still disappointing when whole episodes were spent building up threats that were never then developed. This happened in two notable times on Next Generation. First, in the first season, there was a two-episode arc (unheard of at the time!) about intergalactic parasites who took over the minds of Starfleet officers. Their last appearance (Conspiracy) ends with Data ominously talking about a distress signal that they have managed to send out.
Then a few seasons later there is another story (Schisms) where it turns out that interdimensional aliens are kidnapping officers in their sleep and experimenting on them (Riker has his arm surgically removed and re-attached!) The episode ends with Riker ominously identifying the obviously hostile nature of the aliens and pondering their ultimate motives.
All of that has to be left to fan-fiction, expended universe, and imagination, as neither plot point was ever addressed on TV again.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Hasty Payoff = Bad Payoff
A lot of the series had been building up to a conflict between the heroes and the central villain of the series, Gul Dukat. The moment, when it came, is underwhelming. In a scene that runs about three minutes, Sisko finds himself outmatched by a now super-powerful Dukat, Kai Winn dies trying to help, and Sisko pushes Dukat into a volcano. It’s over far too quickly, which is notable especially since the episode had wasted a lot of time with Dukat and Winn wandering around through fire-caves to the sight of this last battle, in what were obviously filler-scenes designed to pad out the run-time.
Star Trek: Voyager
Abrupt Payoff = Bad Payoff
When it came time to do the finale of Voyager, the Star Trek series about a mixed crew of Starfleet and non-Starfleet trying to find their way home after being transported a squidzillion light years away, the producers were tasked with both showing how the crew got back and what happened after they got back, and still making it pace out into an effective double-length episode.
Their solution was to show the “after” entirely at the beginning, with an extended sequence of the characters years after they’d returned. Then the story follows the future version of Captain Janeway, and shows how she’s dissatisfied with how long it took them to get back (because of all the people who died in the process), and decides to undertake a complicated time-travel plot to bring her prior self home earlier.
So far, so good, except for two things. One—the reasons why Janeway was so driven to this action are not very compelling. The main thing that seems to prompt her is that Seven of Nine died on a mission. This is sad of course, as Seven was sort of Janeway’s personal rehabilitation project, but is it really enough for her to attempt to change history? The stakes should have been higher, and they could have been pretty easily. I have a nifty idea of what I would have done, but that will have to keep for another time.
But the reason I really thought of Voyager for this list was back to my first point—the balance of “how they get home” and “what happens after”. By showing the “after” at the beginning, the series apparently thought it could satisfactorily end with a shot of the ship as it finally flies toward earth, just moments after the climactic battle, with very little “winding down” to appreciate the journey that this crew has been on for seven years. The episode simply goes too its closing credits too quickly, without giving us the time we want to breathe out and celebrate their success. It leaves the last moments of the series a bit emotionally unsatisfying.
Star Trek: Discovery
Underdeveloped Payoff = Bad Payoff
The most recent Star Trek TV series had one of the most well done twist reveals that I’ve seen on TV, but which sadly fell flat afterwards. This was the revelation that the Discovery‘s Captain Lorca was a native of the “mirror universe”, and that many of his decisions were actually machinations to return to his native dimension. It was an astoundingly well delivered twist.
But unfortunately, the whole thing was over and done with by the next episode. Lorca immediately turned into a mustache-twirling villain when he could have easily remained a more ambiguous figure, with his actual darkness being slowly drawn out rather than just slammed at the viewer’s face. His death at the end of that following episode really cemented the wasted opportunity that this was on the part of the production team.
Star Blazers, Season 1
Aborted Payoff = Bad Payoff
If you don’t know, Star Blazers was the American re-working of the Japanese cartoon, Space Battleship Yamato, which was about an alien plague that strikes the earth, and humanity’s desperate mission to send a mighty battleship (the Argo) through space to find a cure. The ticking clock is that they have exactly a year to do this before the plague kills everyone. As such, every episode that detailed this journey would end with a narrator announcing something like, “The Argo has only 253 days left to complete their mission!” with the time steadily counting down.
Until the end, that is. The last 130 days of the journey–the entire trip home after finding the cure–is covered in the last episode, which implies that journey basically went fine except for one last battle.
Apparently this abrupt ending had to do with suddenly having less episodes to work with than the producer’s thought, but that behind-the-scenes explanation still doesn’t make it less disappointing when the season-long slow pacing with the countdown turns out to be kind of meaningless.
Overly Subverted Payoff = Bad Payoff
The Last Jedi has a lot of problems as a film, but one of the most disappointing in terms of payoff is everything with Luke Skywalker. Not only is it sad to see him so mopey, it’s frustrating to have had the plot of the previous film so built around the idea of tracking down his mysterious location, only for it to amount to nothing. And while it was admittedly nifty to see the way he “took down” Kylo Ren, it was disappointing when it turned out that that was apparently the last thing he was ever going to do.
It’s not that you cannot subvert expectations while still creating a compelling story, but in this case I think it took things a step too far, and in the name of stepping out in a new “daring” direction, it lost sight of what had actually been set up before.
Hastily Rewritten Payoff = Bad Payoff
In 1991, DC decided that they’d do a big cross-over event story about a dark dystopian future ruled by a mysterious figure called Monarch. Monarch was supposedly one of the present-day DC heroes who had gone bad, killed his fellows in cataclysmic attack that took place back in 2001, and begun ruling with an iron fist. A rebel named Matthew Ryder got powers and became Waverider, time traveling back to 1991 and began to secretly approach various heroes, touch them (remaining invisible and intangible as he did so) and thus see their future. In doing so, he’d discover which of these heroes was destined to become Monarch in 2001.
All of this was set up in an oversized intro issue. The story then spread out to a dozen Annual issues of DC’s regular titles, which were basically all “what if?” type futures of the heroes, and then the whole thing would conclude somehow in a second oversized finale issue at the end of the summer.
So it was kind of fun, and some of the stories were interesting. I was reading all the Superman titles at the time (there were three of them) and so we saw three different futures for Superman. Amusingly, each one involved him marrying a different woman: Lana Lang, Lois Lane, and Maxima. The explanation for the multiple futures of the was that it turned out Waverider was pulling a Heisenberg Uncertainty on people and that in the process of observing the future, he was actually changing it (his presence would cause subtle changes in the hero’s behaviors, and so on).
In none of the futures did we see someone becoming Monarch. In one and only one of those futures, we saw the heroes actually fighting Monarch. So that would seem to indicate that if any of the heroes were “in the clear”, it’d be the ones who were actually fighting the bad guy they were suspected of becoming. Those heroes were Hawk and Dove.
Anyway, apparently the plan for the whole thing was to make the villain Captain Atom, a hero who was appearing regularly in Justice League Europe at the time. He was high profile enough for it to be a bit shocking, but still minor enough that it wouldn’t cause too many problems for the company (he didn’t have his own title or anything at this point). However, the story goes, the secret leaked somehow, and at the last minute DC decided to hedge its bets and change the outcome of Armageddon 2001 #2.
The new story still starts with Waverider discovering the future of Captain Atom, but even though he goes through a bunch of turmoil, he falls shy of actually becoming Monarch. Instead, we see Monarch from the future traveling back in time to 2001 (something he can only do because of Waverider’s interference) and kidnapping Hawk and Dove, as well as a supporting character (Dove’s boyfriend I think. I wasn’t sure because I never read that title).
Monarch kills the (probably beloved) supporting character and then kills Dove herself, quite abruptly, all to torture Hawk into losing his nut, breaking free and killing Monarch. At this point the truth is revealed: Monarch is an older Hawk, who has come back in time expressly to drive his younger self crazy so that he will kill his older self and causes him to turn into Monarch. It’s implied that this is what would have happened eventually if not for Waverider’s involvement (something Monarch has orchestrated), it’s just that now it’s happened earlier or something. Anyway, younger Hawk becomes Monarch, and proceeds to the end of the story.
This was truly a terrible payoff, for at least five reasons:
- Like I said, Hawk (along with Dove) was actually the only suspect who logically couldn’t be Monarch, as he was seen fighting against him, face to face, in one future story. So the revelation that all of that somehow didn’t matter just made the entire storyline a waste of time. Literally nothing was learned in all the Armageddon 2001 annual issues that contributed to the conclusion of the story, and what you thought you had learned turned out to just be an outright lie.
- Monarch goes back in time just so his younger self can kill his older self and become Monarch? Man, that is some serious commitment to a cause. Why would anyone willingly do such a thing, especially if they were some megalomaniacal villain? It reminds me a bit of that fake Jay Garrick doppelganger from Season Two of The Flash, who was willing to die just to fool everyone into thinking that he wasn’t Zoom. Man, time travel villainy makes you fanatical.
- And since Monarch was apparently only able to come back in time because of Waverider’s interference (and thus give birth to Monarch ten years earlier than he was supposed to show up), how did it happen “originally”? Future Hawk, as he’s dying, says this is how he remembered it, so in the “original history”, future Hawk was still killed by present Hawk, just much later. It’s all so nonsensical.
- I wasn’t a Hawk & Dove reader, but I tell you, if I was, I would have been ticked. Dove and her boyfriend die in the most unglorious and perfunctory manner, and Hawk goes from being a troubled anti-hero into a full blown villain in a matter of one contrived plot point. As writer Karl Kesel once put it (according to Wikipedia), “Hawk and Dove was always a love story. Then one day, Hawk went insane and murdered Dove.”
- At the end of the story, nothing was actually resolved. Both Monarch and Captain Atom disappear through time in the final battle. Presumably this was necessary since obviously, nobody was planning on using Captain Atom at the time, since he was supposed to be turned into a villain. The Monarch / Captain Atom storyline continued in an extremely forgettable miniseries called Armageddon: The Alien Agenda, in which nothing of any consequence actually happened.
It’s hard to know if the original plan of having Captain Atom turn out to be the culprit would have been better, but it’s hard to imagine it would have been worse.
Hollow Payoff = Bad Payoff
River Song was a character created by Steven Moffat before he was Doctor Who’s showrunner. She debuted an archeologist who knew the Doctor…but with the twist being that he didn’t know her. As the story unfolded we learned that she and the Doctor knew each other extremely well…so intimately that River knew the Doctor’s real name…but all of their encounters were out of synch with each other. It turned out that what we were viewing was the Doctor’s first encounter with River, but River’s last encounter with the Doctor (well, nearly anyway), as she died at the end of the story.
So that was all well and good, but then Steven Moffat became the head writer of Doctor Who and he began to bring River back into things as a major recurring character. Since it was all still early in their relationship (from both the Doctor’s and the audience’s point of view) River would regularly let loose hints and teases about her precise identity and the nature of their relationship.
Things got to a head when Amy Pond was kidnapped by the mysterious eye-patch lady (as she was known at the time). The Doctor rallied an army to come and help fight the battle, but River refused because it was destiny that she not be there, because this is where the Doctor would find out the truth about River Song and everything would change.
OK, meanwhile, Amy was being held prisoner, and she met this girl from some other planet who was making her a traditional medallion which would have her baby’s name on it—first name on one side (Melody), surname on the other (Pond). At the end of the story, it turned out Amy’s baby was the real target all along, and the bad guys got away with the baby, leaving Amy and the Doctor devastated.
Then River Song suddenly shows up, and holds up the medallion. Because of translation issues, the girl (who had died by then) had replaced “Melody” with “Song” and “Pond” with “River” (because that girl’s planet didn’t have any ponds on it, only rivers) and because it’s a medallion with interchangeable sides, it could just as easily be read “River Song.” In other words, Amy’s baby is River Song herself!
Phew! Ok, that was a long explanation, and it actually skips a whole bunch of stuff. And a lot of River’s story I find interesting, but there are still some reasons it’s a disappointing reveal, particularly when we find out that River is Amy’s baby.
The thing is, we all knew that Amy’s baby might be River. There were tons of theories being thrown around at the time, and that was one of the leading contenders. Still, in today’s internet age, it’s almost impossible to build up to a twist in a genuinely fair way without someone guessing it and getting a popular thread on Reddit. So with River, this doesn’t bother me. Though we knew River might be Melody, we didn’t know for sure until the episode, and even then there was a bunch more of her story that still needed filling in, so the pacing and timing of these things (around the mid-season break of Season Six) was actually pretty good.
No, what’s annoying is that all of River’s portents about how this was going to be revealed, about how this moment of truth was approaching where the Doctor would discover the real story and everything would change (clearly for the darker, based on River’s tone)…what’s annoying is that all of that turned out to be nothing.
When the moment came, it transpired that the Doctor didn’t learn the truth through any dramatic moment or narrative event. It was just River showing up…and telling him. River comes along up after her younger self has been kidnapped (itself a dramatically justifiable choice, and one about which a bigger deal should have been made) to fill the Doctor in on things. And then, rather than that actually being a dark twist, it actually just cheers the Doctor right up. He dances off in a burst of giddy energy, and River fills in Amy and Rory (her parents) and the audience on what’s going on.
A terrible case of a show telling, not showing.
To add insult to injury, when the next episode rolls around, it turns out that River gets her name not because of the mistranslated medallion, but because she heard the Doctor use the name when she coming out of her brainwashing and thought it’d be a good name to use. So the medallion, the hints about that girl having no water on her world but a river…none of it has any bearing on the story at all.
I love Steven Moffat as a writer but in this case I feel like some basic storytelling got lost in a sea of high-minded ideas.
Cliched Payoff = Bad Payoff
Contact was a movie from 1997 by sometimes great, sometimes overrated director Robert Zemekis. In it, advanced aliens are send humans a message about how to reach them. Jodie Foster and some others figure it out a build a machine which will teleport Jodie to where these aliens are. The whole thing is a very compelling set-up, with a lot of procedural methodology that gets us ready for a profound life-changing experience. Similar to more recent films like Arrival or Interstellar, Contact comes as close to simulating the anticipation of meeting alien life as one imagines a movie could.
Unfortunately, when it gets there, the aliens decide to put Jodie in a simulation of her childhood memories and speak to her in the form of her dead father. Why? Because they figure a more recognizable environment will help her to deal with things.
Man, the last thing we wanted was to be shown a funky simulation of earth and be spoken to in some familiar form. I mean, maybe that would have been interesting if hadn’t been the plot of at least 15 Star Trek episodes. What incredibly boring aliens! It’s almost like they’d been watching human TV and thought that this is how we like to make contact with aliens because it’s such an overused idea.
Actually, that’d be a funny plot for a show like The Orville or something.
Anyway, it was a terrible ending which ruined what was otherwise an interesting movie, proving that it actually had nothing original to offer.
A Mystery Train Ride I took in 2003
Obvious Payoff = Bad Payoff
So, it was my 33rd birthday, and to celebrate I decided that I’d take a “Mystery Train Ride” with my wife, my baby daughter, my brother-in-law, and two friends. To be clear, this wasn’t a mystery in the sense that I didn’t know where I was going. I knew exactly where: a country town 90 km away from Perth. Rather, the idea was that the train ride (and the dinner we’d have at the destination) would be layered with a mystery story that my fellow passengers and I would be invited to try to solve.
The theme was a high school reunion. We were given information about the various characters (identified simply by their occupations or school personas, like the Athlete, or the Cheerleader, or the Chemistry Nerd, or something like that) which hinted at their troubled backstories and the skeletons in their closets. Actors playing the parts would wander up and down the train and have loud conversations or arguments that we could all hear. Occasionally they’d sit down with us, and engage in conversation, and we could ask questions about the situations. I can’t remember all the dynamics but various “mysteries” were hinted at during this part of the process, and it was fun to put them together.
Then in the local hall at our destination, we had a meal (satisfactory, nothing more) and the actors did lip-synching dances to old songs (hits by Abba, that sort of thing), as this was supposed to be the dance at the reunion. In between numbers, they’d act out little scenes for the audience, which basically played out the mysteries that we were picking up on during the train ride.
Now, up to this point, no murder or any other crime had actually been committed–we were just learning about the various conflicts between the cast. I for one hanging out for things to escalate, for us to have something to actually solve.
Finally, it happened. One guy was a Chemist who had for years cut drugs for some other character, but for some reason, decided he wasn’t doing that anymore. He told his client, the Class President (actually I can’t remember who it was, I’m just going to say Class President to call him something) that he was through. The Class President was incensed, and openly and publicly yelled at the Chemist, threatening to kill him.
Sure enough, after the next song, the Chemist suddenly burst through the door with a big fake spear impaled through his stomach. He stumbled around the room in an amusing way and then “died”.
Finally, a mystery to solve!
But the story, it seems, was over–there was no more development and no more clues. The MC just got up and said something like, “There you go, that’s the mystery. Who killed the Chemist, why did he or she do it, and did they have any accomplices?” We had to write the answer as a table (my friends and some others) in order to win.
Now, obviously it looked like it was the Class President, but I thought “No way! That’d be too obvious! That’d be so lame! That’s not the answer!” And I helped convince my table to put forward some other obscure guess.
After a break, the MC came back on and said, “OK, here’s the answer. It was the Class President because the Chemist didn’t want to cut drugs for him anymore. He didn’t have an accomplice. Table 9 is the winner!”
That’s right, the answer to the mystery was that the person who loudly proclaimed that he was going to kill the victim, and loudly proclaimed why he was going to do it, actually did do it for the exact reason that they said. They didn’t even dramatize this revelation, they just announced it.
Suffice it say, we were not Table 9, and I was incredibly annoyed, especially since tickets for this whole mess were around $70+.
On the way home, they didn’t turn the heat on the train because everyone just kept warm by getting drunk in the bar car. My wife was worried my baby daughter would freeze to death but she pulled through. And I was worried that the people who had bought tickets to go with me wouldn’t speak to me again, but if they held a grudge they never let on.
On the plus side, it inspired me to start writing my own mystery games because I thought for sure I could do a better job.
(Oh! I just thought of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. Also a pretty bad payoff. But no time to get into that right now).