Had we but world enough, and time.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
Even though I was never an avid follower of Game of Thrones I still couldn’t help but be aware that this particular Next Big Thing had drawn to a close. So while the vast majority of you mourn an absence of dragons in your lives I’ll try to cheer you up by writing about what I’d like to see be the Next Big Thing.
Now while I believe there are a number of Game of Thrones spin-offs planned I will confidently predict that none of them will be anywhere near as popular as the original series. That curious beast, the general public, doesn’t like to graze in the same place for too long. For example I’ve been assured by a number of people that the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, is a great show. This may be so but as far as I can tell it has never reached the Must Watch level of popularity that its progenitor enjoyed.
Given the fickle tastes of the general public it surprises me not in the least that no two Must Watch shows of recent years have been alike in setting. Series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad which have taken up the Next Big Thing torch have certainly had aspects in common. All of them have been gritty shows about the dark underbelly of society and the currency of violence that fuels it. On the other hand each series employed quite different setting and and casts of characters which in turn has ensured the plot dynamics of each show be not quite like the others. Superficially the criminals portrayed in each series might resemble each other but try to turn a typical episode of one into a typical episode of another and you will find it much harder than it might seem at first glance.
This is why Game of Thrones, which on the surface seems an unlikely successor to the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, managed to grasp the Next Big Thing torch. That the story had a fantasy setting rather than being set in the real world didn’t matter since it was still all about what the ruthless will do to satisfy their lusts. The fact of the matter is that dynastic struggles are very like gang wars and the sort of terrifying people we have an eternal fascination for watching from a safe distance invariably become players in both.
What I’m getting at here is that if the coming Next Big Thing is to be a fantasy or science fiction epic it has to have a number of attributes in common with what has come before. First of all there needs to be a story big enough to fill multiple seasons of plot. For example Lord of the Rings is a big story while The Hobbit is not. The former easily filled three films with material left over while the latter was not able to repeat this feat. The story needs to, at the very least, partially focus on the dark underbelly of society and do so in a visceral manner. Mad Men not withstanding boardroom style drama is no longer as popular as it was back in the days of Dallas and Falcon’s Crest. Audiences are more interested in seeing characters get down and dirty in the streets with guns and knives than as grey suited executives attempting to manipulate each other from behind desks. It should not require expensive locations or settings, or at least these should be mostly kept to establishing shots. The source material needs to be capable of being tailored to fit modern sensibilities. I would assume this is not a concern in regards to recent fiction but since I’ve not read much of recent vintage I couldn’t honestly say. On the other hand hand I do know older stories would need tweaking to a greater or lesser extent. However, it should be noted that such tweaking isn’t always due to older material containing problematic attitudes. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding problematic modern features such as excessive darkness of plot, excessively gritty world-building, gratuitous nudity, and that visceral violence I mentioned earlier. And finally a potential Next Big Thing should not feel too much like what has come before. Bit of a tall order, eh?
Of all the requirements listed above clearly it’s the first one which is the most difficult to satisfy. I can think of a great many science fiction or fantasy stories that would make a great movie but which simply could not be stretched to fill multiple series of a TV show. For example, I’m certain that The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers could be made into an extremely interesting film but I don’t think the novel contains sufficient material for anything longer. (Also, unfortunately, I suspect this and Powers other novels aren’t the sort of stories which have sufficiently wide appeal to even be considered by film studios.)
I’m not sure that even book series such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga would work (even though I’m sure many people would be excited if they did, I’d certainly like to see the latter). Though both series consist of multiple novels I don’t think the stories contained within each individual book are linked together sufficiently to work as a multi-season TV show. Besides which I think the central characters are a bit too noble and nice to carry a TV show attempting to emulate Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Plus, the major threat in McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, the thread, lacks something as a threat. The thread, being in essence a non-intelligent natural disaster, doesn’t allow for the same degree of dramatic tension a conscious, reactive threat poses.
So after much thought I’ve only been able to come up with a single collection of novels which might work if translated into television terms, this being Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion universe.
At this point I imagine those of you familiar with Michael Moorcock’s work have already raised your eyebrows and begun to frame a series of objections. Foremost among these I suspect being whether Moorcock would allow his work to be turned into a big budget TV show at all. However, since this is an article of speculation I think we can safely set this argument to one side.
There are other reasonable objections to to using the Eternal Champion universe of course, the foremost among these being the books themselves, or at those of them I’ve read, being on the short side. I have to admit that if a novel like The Hobbit doesn’t have enough enough meat in it for three films then the slender volumes in trilogies such as The History of the Runestaff or The Chronicles of Count Brass are hardly going to stretch any further. However, according to John Clute, writing in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (edited by John Clute and John Grant), Moorcock ‘…constantly revises and retitles his texts and because he habitually reshuffles the order in which those texts appear…’ which suggests to me that even greater liberties could be taken with pre-existing plots and characters of the Eternal Champion universe without incurring any more than the standard level of outrage. (I was going to describe this as viewer outrage until I realised that waiting to view the completed project is hardly necessary when it comes to outrage).
So what do I mean by taking even greater liberties? Essentially choosing one avatar of the Eternal Champion and expanding their story so that other avatars, and perhaps parts of their own stories, can be introduced into the chosen plot. There’s already precedence for multiple avatars coming together to perform a task in The Quest For Tanelorn so that’s clearly not going against the rules of the universe. Admittedly I don’t recall the various characters interacting with each other much but if it’s permissible for multiple avatars to perform some task together then I don’t see why there can’t be some (by which I mean a great deal of) drama between them. There is the problem that as far as I recall the majority of the Eternal Champion avatars are a bit on the bland side, being primarily sword-wielding action heroes, but a little tweaking of personalities should solve that. Again, there’s precedent for this in the form of Elric of Melnibone, who is already an introspective, treacherous, angst ridden individual who’s also in thrall to his soul-drinking sword, Stormbringer. Now if the other avatars could be made half as interesting as that we might have something.
Which brings us to the question of in what part of the Eternal Champion universe should our story begin? Well, I think that’s obvious, it has to start with Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Coln. The books about Hawkmoon are set in an alternate science-fantasy version of Europe which is under threat by the insane warriors of Granbretan. This choice has a number of advantages as I see it.
For starters the warrior tribes or clans of Granbretan would make an excellent evil threat as they’re always described as being a bit on the insane side. Which I believe means they have the potential for every sort of scenery-chewing possible (and perhaps a few not yet invented) ranging from cold, sneering contempt to incoherent rage, with a bit of Brian Blessed style exuberant bellowing in between. In short the Granbretan leadership should be able to reduce Europe to rubble by force of their over-the-top acting alone.
Secondly the Europe of Dorian Hawkmoon is set in world that I would describe as science fantasy. (Just as an aside I’ve seen these books described as steampunk, a term which I consider inappropriate here. There seems to be a tendency to label any story which mixes technology with anything else as steampunk. As far as I’m concerned this is stretching the definition of steampunk too far. Steampunk as a term should be reserved for non-magical worlds where technology has been developed in advance of the rest of society.) What this means is technology exists in this world but is present in a far from universal manner and that it’s not always clear whether a particular piece of technology operates using science or magic. Thus the Granbretan army has helicopters but not rifles and that some of the weapons used by their opponents are almost certainly magical. All this adds an exotic flavour to the familiar, so that for example we might see what looks like the Eiffel Tower being built in the alternate Paris only to discover that it is intended as a platform for Granbretan helicopters.
Moorcock used a particularly baroque style of visuals which would make a TV version of it particularly interesting. For example the warriors of Granbretan all wear helmet-like masks designed to look like whichever animal each tribe uses as a totem, wolf, boar, etc. Their helicopters are also designed to look like insects, prey-mantises as I recall, which would look impressive on TV.
Finally, every avatar of the Eternal Champion has been chosen by fate to help maintain the cosmic balance between law and chaos. However, Dorian Hawkmoon, unlike many of the other avatars of the Eternal Champion clearly can’t defeat his enemies without significant help so the idea of assembling a team to save his homeland seems reasonable. In the books he went searching for the Runestaff in order to do this but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to add a few fellow avatars to Dorian’s shopping list. The advantage to this change is that it would ensure there were two competing teams, with endless drama plaguing both. On one side the leaders of Granbretan would be in disagreement as to how best to hunt down and eliminate Dorian Hawkmoon and his companions. Meanwhile relationships between the various avatars of the Eternal Champion would be strained to say the least given most don’t understand their role in the universe and would resent the burden of it if they did. Dorian Hawkmoon would find them a very difficult group to keep from each other’s throats and focused on his goal.
With any luck the end result would be a weird mix of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Dirty Dozen. I’d certainly watch that if somebody would care to make it.