Friday, August 9, 2013

Continuum and the Ruined Setting

As fans of speculative fiction, we expect to see the fantastic and the unbelievable on our shows and in our books. We accept vampires and demons, zombies and werewolves, space ships with strangely humanoid aliens, we accept dragons and magic and all kinds of fantastic and wonderful things besides. The very nature of the genre requires us to believe the very extremes of human imagination to be possible.

But, sadly, sometimes we’re left feeling that because we’re fans of speculative fiction, we’re able to swallow anything, no matter how implausible. This particularly applies to the real world setting, the world and characters which can be inexplicably radically different from the actual settings we know (or even incomprehensible to anything resembling basic common sense) and we’re expected to accept that. This leaves a yawning credibility gap that undermines the story and smacks of lazy writing or poor research

While there are many ways to produce this credibility gap (many shows have done this by having protagonists who make the most unimaginable decisions - AND survive them), Continuum opens it’s credibility gap with its highly dubious representation of its setting that barely resembles the actual city its supposed to be set in.

One of the things that continues to bother me about Continuum is the fact that though it is set in Vancouver, Canada; Betty is the only Asian character. Vancouver is the site of the second largest Chinatown in North America and the Chinese are by far the most visible minority in Vancouver. The Chinese population is also the fastest growing and is expected to reach 809,000 by 2031. That being said, where are all of the Asian cast members? Why don't we see more Chinese people in street shots? The racial makeup of Vancouver is well known and yet Continuum chose to basically erase Chinese people. This is actually very much in line with most media as on an average night’s television viewing Asian people are greatly erased.

If this was Continuum's only failure it would be bad but, unfortunately, while Continuum took the time and care to create a fantastic future, it showed little concern  for the present. When Kiera first arrived in the past, Alec was able to quickly create a shaky covert identity for by breaking into CSIS's computer banks. I am sure that I was not the only shaking my head at that. Yes, Alec is a genius but, to be clear, CSIS is the highest level of policing in Canada. Not just policing, but this is the head of Canada’s intelligence and security - but Alec, working from a computer in his back yard, is not only able to do this but do so with incredible ease?

To further confound this (and insult our intelligences), everyone is quite willing to accept Kiera’s heavily redacted file from an organisation no-one’s ever heard of. So willing are they to go along, unquestioning, with Kiera’s shoddy background that when Agent Gardiner, an actual CSIS agent, shows up he is treated as suspicious and paranoid for questioning who Kiera is and what she’s actually doing and under whose authority?

Maybe, I have higher expectations of the police’s security, but you’d think you’d need at least a Supernatural-style fake badge before swanning into a police station, carrying a gun and pretending to be a cop; let alone becoming a top ranked member of a terrorism investigation that includes the assassination of the city’s mayor. Let’s add to this that Kiera presents herself as a foreign national who doesn’t even have a right to remain in Canada - let alone have the right to carry a gun around. Actual American cops can’t run across the Canadian border chasing bad guys and at very least they are police.

There’s also very little acknowledgement of how things work in Canada. The show seems to use CSIS as some kind of fill in for the FBI (or the ever-popular Homeland Security), but the RCMP should be all over this. And this isn’t the only example - in Second Degree Julian is found not guilty in court and, in response, the mayor promises an investigation into the judge who made the decision. Now, we’re all no strangers to politicians making grandiose boasts they can’t back up - but the judiciary is far outside of a mayor’s jurisdiction; at best it’s a provincial or even a federal matter.

And, of course, there’s Dillon and how he runs his police force. And the “his” there is appropriate. Despite being made to step down by the powers that be in the beginning of the series, he is not only reinstated, but he becomes a supreme ruler. He hands his police over to Escher, lock stock and barrel - he overtly states they have been privatised, he openly takes money from Escher which is so beyond illegal that even the most corrupt of police forces would boggle. The media, when they do catch wind of this (though it takes them an awfully long time and the Liber8 hack to achieve this - which is dubious because it’s a rare media that doesn’t have at least a few journalists keeping an eye on the public budget) it barely causes have an episode of trepidation - let alone the full investigation it should do.

Dillon has no oversight, he follows no laws, he is happy hacking into anything, ordering people followed for no reason - and even torture and killing of people at his say so. Not only does he have no-one above him to answer to (especially when you consider he was stripped of his position for incompetence) but the closest we have to any of his officers challenging this is Carlos’s hand wringing. No cop questions him, either his privatisation plans or his torturing people, let alone reports it. Why is this precinct an island? Where are the rest of the city - of the province’s oversight. He had 2 CSIS agents hanging around for some time - did neither of them notice anything?

Perhaps some of this could be explained by showing Escher managing to corrupt the provincial government to an epic degree - but we’re not shown anything remotely resembling that kind of power. In all, it just doesn’t wash. It isn’t believable and it is more than playing fast and loose with the setting.

I can imagine more than a few people are stepping forward to protest that this is fiction. That it doesn’t matter. That we’re nitpicking. But it does matter - apart from anything else it’s blatantly lazy writing; rather than make the effort to take an actual setting and make the story fit it and be part of it, the writers twist the setting however they see fit to shoe-horn their story into it. And not just lazy writing - it damages the story. I want to believe Kiera and her story, but it’s hard to do when I’m snarking over Canadian police happily handing badges over to any random foreigner who claims to be police, honest guv. They break the suspension of disbelief with glaring errors, massive plot holes and a world setting fraying around the edges

It also represents the pervasive dismissal that so often plagues speculative fiction. It doesn’t matter, it’s speculative fiction; it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s speculative fiction. It doesn’t need to be criticised, it’s speculative fiction. It doesn’t need to be well written, it’s speculative fiction. There’s the strong undertone that people who are fans of sci-fi, dystopian, fantasy etc will swallow just about anything, so why does it matter if the plots make sense, the world setting is realistic and researched or the whole thing is solidly written?

It’s that dismissal that not only causes a considerable amount of annoying contempt for the genre - but also prevents the genre being subject to the analysis and critique it needs to grow and change. This is especially true when erasure of minorities is one of the most common ways settings are poorly represented in the genre.