Arthur Dent once fell our of a cup suspended thirteen miles above ground level. The cup, explained the bird who had caught him, was held in 13 miles above the ground as part of the statue Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutrimatic Cup. It was held there by art. “It stays there because it’s artistically right. The law of gravity isn’t as indiscriminate as people often think.”
Since recording the Fusion Patrol podcast on Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol I have been thinking a lot about the air fish. If you haven’t seen it, there were shoals of fish – and a shark – swimming in the air (supposedly in the ice clouds). They resonated with me, pehaps partly because when I was five the only things I remember giving me nightmares were Doctor Who and Jaws, but mostly because they were really, really cool. And I realise we didn’t discuss what absolute nonsense the “explanation” for what they were doing there was. It is nonsense, but I think it doesn’t matter, we accept them there because they are artistically right. They please us.
In storytelling, and in science fiction especially, when the bounds of everyday observable physics are stretched there will be a scientific or pseudo scientific explanation. In fact, this is no more than the need in fiction generally to frame the fiction with reference to our everyday experiences. Thus a political thriller (whether House of Cards or 24) will take the reality of a systems and procedures of politics to frame an alternate president or prime minister.in the world of Harry Potter, although there is a magical platform 12 3/4, it is framed within the King’s Cross we know, this part of the reality is carried over. Although the magic, like all the events in the story, is completely made up, we expect to recognise characteristics, interaction and behaviour of those who people it. A lecturer in my undergrad days, Andrew Harrison, illustrated his concept of “fictional frames” by telling a story of a fire breathing dragon who rode an open topped bus around Clifton. There are parts we recognise, where we fill in the details, and the made up parts need – if not to be explained – to be well bounded. We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty, just like Douglas Adams’ fictional Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Bodies.
Some of these explanations, or indulgences of the imagination, like the space fish in Doctor Who: Vampires of Venice serve as scaffolding for the story. In that case the story is Rory’s adventure with Amy and the Doctor, which was enjoyable because of the witty dialogue, rather than the plot or the pretext. If the scaffolding is poor it can ruin a story, but on its own good scaffolding is not enough. And if we spend our time pondering on these explanations, it is because the story has failed in some other way (contrast the air fish with the water man in Man From Atlantis in which I ended up focussing on how he could speak or radio underwater). The laws of storytelling also demand the plotting, characterisation and the pacing of the story hold our attention – sometimes the momentum can carry us past some suspect piece of technobabble (‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’).
But this is the engineering of storytelling. It’s about getting the nuts and bolts in the right place. The thing about the air fish, is this: it was such a joyful leap of the imagination; so pleasurably dreamlike; so beautiful to see them swimming around a lamppost that as viewers we wanted them to be there, to be real within the fictional frame of the story, and to defy the physics of reality. That was what made those fish buoyant, not something engineered, but a pure force of storytelling as powerful as thrust or gravity in the familiar physics of daily life.
I like air fish. Air fish are cool.