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This post originally ran on May 25, 2015.
The TV show Arrow has just wound down its third season, the plots which kind of meandered mid-season all drawing up into a tense conclusion, and it remains a very fun show that I enjoy watching, but there’s a fascinating problem that has begun occurring. Unfortunately, I can’t point it out to you specifically without spoiling the plot of the season for you.
So! Instead, I will talk a TV show that’s been off the air for ages, called Torchwood, and we’ll go from there.
Torchwood, if you don’t recall or never knew about it, was a Doctor Who spinoff series starring John Barrowman (Malcom Merlyn on Arrow!) as Captain Jack Harkness who, along with his team, went around fighting monsters (and mainly fighting clumsy plotting, but never mind). I watched it all, because it was frequently verging on being a really good show, but it never…quite…got there. I ended most episodes rewriting it in my mind.
Among the many frustrating details of Torchwood was what I want to talk about here, with Arrow, and which I now refer to as “the Torchwood effect” whenever I think about it. In Torchwood, it was this: The Torchwood team could not really ever face a truly gigantic, world-changing, very dangerous problem because if such a problem did exist…the Doctor would appear to deal with it. It was a show with a glass ceiling, you see? Any problem beyond their pay grade, and the problem would now be big enough for the main show.
Occasionally, this combined with bad writing so that episodes with bigger plots happened, and when the end of the episode was building, I would realize that the satisfying conclusion was for the TARDIS to appear, the Doctor to step out, and the world to be affably saved. But when the world-saving happened, the actual written conclusion was frequently dodgy (to be kind) (look, Torchwood just never worked for me).
This brings us back to Arrow, a much better-written show on the whole, a show that had no sign of the “Torchwood effect” until this past season…when The Flash premiered.
Where the Arrow himself is essentially Batman, in every plot and other conceivable way except that he has a bow and arrow, the Flash is a bona-fide meta-human, a man with superpowers. He can run faster than bullets! Than sound! Than time itself!
And occasionally, we’ve had crossover episodes between Arrow and The Flash, about which I have zero complaints because they’ve all been amazing fun. But. The “Torchwood effect” occurs toward the end of Arrow’s season, when city-destroying dangers are manifesting and the stakes are very high, life-or-death high, not only for all our heroes but for the city itself.
…and suddenly, we have to quietly ignore the Flash. Because a crossover here, at the end of the season, would kind of bungle things up. The Flash premiered and kind of became the glass ceiling above which Arrow’s problems cannot rise. And if they do, then we all have to agree to kind of ignore the fact that there’s a whole solution to the drama-causing problem just one city over. We can enjoy it, but we cannot say “team Arrow called out everyone, even Iron-Man-esque Brandon Routhe, why not the Flash?”
This isn’t a new problem, in the slightest, nor does it even begin with Torchwood, that’s just where I noticed and named it. It’s been an ongoing problem with Superman in any Justice League scenario for ages. I remember being very annoyed at the Justice League cartoons because in them, Superman was ludicrously underpowered. Things were always knocking him down or stunning him a bit, because otherwise he could just explode the problem with his laser eyes and there goes your thirty minute episode.
It manifests a bit in the Marvel movies right now, too. In Captain America 2: Winter Soldier, the problems with S.H.I.E.L.D. are so huge and catastrophic, how did all that shit going down not qualify as an Avengers assembly sort of problem?
It’s an interesting problem, and one for which I don’t have a solution. That isn’t to say I don’t think there is a solution, however, just that I haven’t worked it out yet. I think probably you have to define boundaries between the shows very clearly, in a manner in which it makes this problem impossible. You need enough space in your storytelling universe so that it’s perfectly conceivable for your different groups to crossover in fun situations, but that’s it. For example, it doesn’t matter how world-destroying the problem is that the Avengers are facing, they’d seem small and very far away to the Guardians of the Galaxy, wouldn’t they?
Mostly, the solution is that this problem has to be noticed every time and planned for. It has to be dealt with. To get back to Arrow and The Flash, all it would take would be a scene or two explaining why the Flash can’t intervene (or can’t intervene yet) to safely push this question away and let us carry on with the story. (And it has to be satisfying, beyond a “sorry, I’ve gotta go,” scene or a “I called but he didn’t answer,” line of dialog. Really planned for).
Careful writing, as always, is the best answer. Or, failing that, just not watching stuff with me because I’m like this about everything. I can only apologize.
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