Our family enjoys the BBC’s flagship family sci-fi series Doctor Who (I’m pretty sure, though it is available on the BBC site, you have to be in the UK – I’m told it also airs on BBC America). This I share with several other bible bloggers. It was the end of the series this week, and unfortunately it ended with a staggeringly Blurflurgh plot. A very sad way to end a series with some significant high-points*
On the Imminent Destruction of the Universe
As a student, watching Star Trek, The Next Generation, my friends and I came up with the concept of the Blurflurgh plot. It goes like this:
“Oh no, there’s a blurflurgh!” “What’s a blurflurgh?” “A blurflurgh is the only thing that can destroy the universe, we can’t let the blurflurgh flemmoxate”. “It’s flemmoxating.” “Its okay, I have a praxindoodle, which prevents the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh destroying the universe”. “But the praxindoodle only works in the presence of gamma-umithrons.” “We can desedrify the ship’s jimgraxle to generate a stream of gamma umithrons to power the praxindoodle that will prevent the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh from destroying the universe. But the only button is on the inside of the jimgraxle room.” “But that will kill you.” “Yes, but its a sacrifice I must make. Goodbye everyone” …5 minute FX shot… “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “I realised that the only way to survive the desedrification field is to finally understand the meaning of love.” “Cool – what’s next?”
As you can see it is a pretty lame plot, although by the frequency of its use you would never know. There are lots of subtleties to how bad this plot is (I could, literally, talk for a couple of hours on it), but for today’s lesson, here’s two.
1. It relies on almost nothing you know or could reasonably anticipate. It makes a nonsensical mortal problem in order to provide the heroes with an opportunity to supply a nonsensical solution. All the time having to tell you why the solution solves the problem, because the nature of Blurflurgh plots is that the connection is so arbitrary, you simply could never guess.
2. The ‘twist’ in the tale bears jarringly little relationship to either the problem or solution. It is a form of Deus Ex Machina, only with the Deus being a magical link between the emotional and the physical world. The less egregious Blurflurghs at least make the desedrification-survival-technique use a Trakanemnon Gun that was given to the hero as a token of universe-healing love. The worse skip the Trakanemnon and just make Love itself do the work.
If you think about the Christian atonement story as a narrative structure, it is a Blurflurgh plot. To tell the story, you have to first create just the right kind of God, then describe the fall, then original sin and universal guilt, then the principle of substitutionary sacrifice, then wrap that around Jesus and his untimely death, and the hero saves everyone but dies himself. But no, “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “Because Death cannot defeat perfect love.” “Cool – what’s next?”
If you’ve ever seen the evangelism story using the cross as a bridge, this is the Blurflurgh plot laid bare. 99% of the story is spent telling the hearer of all the invented rules of the fantasy world that make it so the conclusion is understandable.
On the Best Way to Polish a Poor Plot
I have a vivid memory of discussing the first Wheel of Time book with a fan. I found (and still find) this kind of fantasy narrative very derivative, and more than a little Blurflurgh. You have to create a bunch of arbitrary peril, then a bunch more arbitrary solution, and laden the end with cheap and shallow sentimentality. I was trying to explain this to the fan (before I had the word Blurflurgh). They insisted the story was logically compelling, and did make sense, because, you see, Rand obviously had to have no parents, because, as we’ll see later in the series, such-and-such happened to them. And with the Aes Sedai so powerful, that means that he has to stay on the run, and so on. Layers and layers of post-hoc rationalization built around a Blurflurgh plot with the sole purpose of making the underlying preposterousness seem less preposterous.
If you talk about substitutiary atonement enough it can seem pretty normal too. Hell, even I have fallen into the trap of having long, detailed discussions about its minutiae. Forgetting the obvious, and not well hidden truth: it is a preposterous fantasy and by being utterly arbitrary, is also utterly unamenable to reason.
* Among which have been, for me – the question of whether there is knowledge you would want yourself not to know, and the sublime (and I hope intended) statement on the impotence of fame that was bringing Vincent Van Gogh to his own exhibition in the Louvre in 2010, only for him to still commit suicide when returned.