Back when I was a kid, we would visit my cousin’s house every Halloween. He always went big with the holiday, doing an elaborate haunted house that was pretty much the biggest thing in the county. Scaredy-cat that I was (and am), I usually dressed up and handed out candy instead of working in the actual haunted house.
After the fact, we would stay the night, and the weekend (he always had the haunted house open for at least one weekend. For me, the big treat about that was the fact that not only did he had a Nintendo Entertainment System, but also cable television. This usually meant Cartoon Network forever, but in the mornings, CN had stuff on like Bananarama or Tom and Jerry, which I wasn’t a big fan of, so I would channel surf.
On such weekend, when I was ten or eleven, I flipped to the Sci-Fi channel and found that I was just in time for the start of Rodan. Not Godzilla vs Rodan, just Rodan. And it was amazing. I had never seen a foreign film, let alone a dubbed one in my life, so it took a while for me to get why everyone talked weirdly out of synch, but eventually, a giant pterodactyl was fighting the Defense Force and life was good.
That was my first exposure to the kaiju genre and it led me to check out Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which of course introduced me to the King of Monsters, Godzilla. Before anyone asks, I have never seen the Gamera movies, but I really want that boxed set.
Then, it happened. In 1998, fresh off the awesome face-rocking Jurassic Park gave audiences everywhere, we were promised something even bigger: a big budget American Godzilla movie.
The thing you have to understand is that at the time, the ‘guy in a rubber suit’ style that Japanese kaiju movies used were seen as hokey. People wanted to see what cutting-edge CGI could do for the big guy, and who better to do the job than veterans of Big Spectacle films like Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin?
In the end, we learned a valuable lesson about appreciating the rubber suits and the just plain better action and writing of the Japanese versions and would not repeat the mistake of letting Americans make kaiju movies until Cloverfield taught us this lesson all over again, only more boring.
Putting it simply, Godzilla ’98 did it all wrong. They focused too heavily on the human cast while treating Godzilla as just a big, dumb animal with explosive breeder stacked on top because all bad monster movies need to add that. Adding insult to injury, Zilla (as Toho and fans call the creature from Godzilla ’98) didn’t have atomic breath, had little in the way of personality, and was ultimately super easy to kill once the army decided to, you know, aim.
All in all, it was a huge disappointment of such a magnitude that I was stunned to speechlessness that Toho let us try again.
But an odd quirk of 90’s movie-making then came around and allowed Godzilla ’98 to redeem itself without committing seppuku. You see, in the late 90’s, almost every blockbuster action movie that could possibly be toned down and marketed to kids was. That’s how we got animated series for Men in Black, Jumanji, and even freaking Evolution.
It’s also how we got this week’s subject: Godzilla the Series.
He set-up goes like this: following the death of Zilla, Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (now where have we heard that name before?) leads a team to search for and destroy any remaining Zilla eggs. As it turns out, one survived and ended up imprinting like a bird on the good doctor.
Not long thereafter, it’s discovered that the same nuclear testing, pollution and other poor decisions on humanity’s part are resulting in more giant mutants. So Nick assembles a team to study these creatures—with a giant, atomic fire-breathing ally to take them down is necessary. And it is always necessary.
It was an incredibly good show, one of the better of its era (which included a bunch of utter crap like the Ripping Friends and butchered dubs of anime like Sonic X, One Piece and Ultimate Muscle. Yes, I know One Piece is actually great, but you probably didn’t have to deal with the 4Kids dub), and now that I’d binged the entire series, I find that it had a lot to teach us, both good and bad about writing. Here are some of the most important lessons:
There Are Bigger Stakes Than Death
Godzilla in the series is significantly more… vincible… than in the movies. He’s gotten sick, poisoned, and even beaten unconscious. They really want to convince us there’s danger to the Big Guy despite him being… you know, Godzilla.
However, like in every form of media ever, we, as an audience know that the main character isn’t really in that much danger until the very end, and sometimes even then, they’ll be back soon enough. A depressing number of works still operate on the idea that we’re going to be afraid for the main characters and try to generate fake drama via the LOL Death, killing minor characters, or just not creating any meaningful main characters and then killing them all, like in a horror movie.
One thing I noticed over the course of GtS though is that while they still threaten death or widescale destruction at every turn, the real and dramatic threat that turns up time and time again is the break-up of the team. Not just via having someone eaten either. There are several episodes across the two seasons where the idea that someone might leave the team (and the effects thereof) is a major threat.
More poignantly, Nick and Godzilla share a fairly paternal bond that is constantly being threatened, from the attempts to kill or capture, to the ongoing idea that Godzilla might ‘outgrow’ Nick and rebel like a teenager. In fact, there are several episodes where Godzilla exerting independence is a major theme and is presented as a potential danger (as in, who will keep Godzilla from killing the crap out of everyone if he stops listening to Nick?).
It’s refreshing to have media—especially media with a younger primary audience acknowledging that there are other bad things that can happen besides death. These days, writers are constantly told to raise the stakes, but they never ask ‘raise them from where?’ and they never ask ‘can’t there be more stakes than one?’.
What is interesting about how GtS does this is that the possibility of death by mutant is in literally every episode. Widescale disaster is pretty frequently an issue too. But the writers seem to understand that those are the bread and butter of this kind of show and go out of their way to show that worries about your relationship (platonic, romantic or paternal), your job, and reputation are still important because you still have to live n the world if you save it.
It’s a good lesson to teach and a good one for writers to keep in mind. These kind of issues aren’t petty and won’t just go away because there’s something more pressing. They just need to be prioritized.
Sometimes People Don’t Learn The Lessons You Expect Them To
The character of Audrey, the intrepid reporter who served as the love interest in the first movie returns in GtS as a recurring (but not regular) cast member. In the movie, she has to learn the less that all women with careers are forced to learn in movies: that her career isn’t as important as her love interest.
About that. In GtS, we find out that surprise!: Audrey didn’t stop liking her reporter job just because Nick made sadface at her. And over the course of the series, she ends up time and again having to learn to balance her ambitions, her ethics and her personal relationships—like a real person!
TVTropes notes this as an example of Aesop Amnesia, but that’s not really true. Learning isn’t an on/off switch when it comes to this sort of thing, so it take several tries for her to figure out how far is too far. At the same time,Nick actually has to compromise and give a few interviews because stunningly, he’s also in this relationship and it can’t be nothing but Audrey sacrificing.
Could this have been pulled off better? Yes. The main problem with the Audrey plot wasn’t that she ‘wasn’t’ learning, it’s that she only showed up to show off this one conflict of hers. If she was allowed to show herself to be more multifaceted, the ‘amnesia’ thing would have been softened in my opinion. It’s a good start and frankly one very few shows engage in, but there’s still a ways to go to get the technique down.
Along these same lines, sometimes not learning is the point. Comic Relief Dude, Randy (who I am sure someone in the comment section will call annoying because… he got annoying a lot) never really learns to keep his mouth shut or be more serious. The show has situations that would normally end with him learning his lesson, but nope. GtS doesn’t even have him admit her learns his lesson. He just keeps going as if nothing happened.
It was late in the series when it struck me that there’s nothing wrong with that. Okay, as a person, there’s something wrong with that, but from a writing standpoint, it’s another Real Person thing that most characters never get. Yes, some people never learn. We know this. No matter if Mighty Zeus shot them with a thunder bolt with a clue written on it, there aren’t going to get it. Most shows wouldn’t bother showing the ‘lessons’ being missed, but GtS very purposefully had Randy cheerfully ignore them. And that’s what ended up making him less annoying to me. Well that and…
There Is More Than One Path To Likability
You know why I liked Randy as a kid? Because he liked Godzilla. Aside from Nick, everyone else in the show is afraid of, or at least considering killing the Big Guy. That is a perfectly reasonable position for anyone ever to have when they live in the same universe as him.
Except we live in the universe where we know he’s Godzilla, we know he will never actually turn on Nick, and we know he’s pretty much a kaiju superhero. And that makes Randy pretty refreshing when he cheers for Godzilla’s arrival, shouts out one-liners (because Godzilla can’t) and fiercely sticks up for him.
Now I’m not going to lie; Randy is obnoxious. He is prototypical of a certain character from the nineties: the only minority character in the cast, he’s also the only one who seems to be aware of pop culture (and nothing else), he uses tons of (now dated) sling, plays comic relief, is portrayed as a brilliant-but-lazy hacker, and at one point, yes we do indeed see him on a skateboard. In the 90’s every kid’s show seemed to be legally obligated to have this guy.
But that one saving grace: the fact that he’s the only character who sees Godzilla the way the audience sees Godzilla, seems to make him less hated than his Poochie-esque counterparts. Even I, who am completely aware of this, can’t bring myself to hate him because goddamnit, he’s right: when Godzilla arrives, the day is going to be saved… with a bit more property damage than was going to happen otherwise.”
Along similar lines, we have Mendel Craven, who true to his name is a huge coward, who is more terrified than is even justified of Godzilla and constantly whines about germs or Randy’s antics. Again, this is a bog standard character, but in this case, the show did a pretty great job of giving this due some layers.
First of all, it takes the ENTIRE run of the series for him to start to lose some of his fear. Some. He has hero moments, but they’re few and far between and under duress. Fear is just part of him and he has to work very, very hard every time to master it. And that’s already ahead of the curve for this kind of character: they usually either stay a complete coward forever, or become a back-up badass.
Craven was different in that, while almost always portrayed as a fearful hypochondriac, he’s shown to live a pretty normal life outside of the shadow of Godzilla. He still does research papers for journals, he manages to swallow his pant-wetting terror to seriously study Godzilla more than anyone else on the team, and—in a stunning subversion of his archetype—he even gets out and dates. The implication is that aside from his germophobia (which has in some episodes shown to actually be justified by bad luck in that he WILL catch pretty much any bug that’s going around), his fear is completely reasonable in that it only concerns giant, murderous beasts and he is, in fact, a pretty normal, well adjusted guy.
People Will Not Always Get What You’re Trying To Do
If there’s on episode the GtS fandom hates (and yes, there is a fandom despite this show being from before the internet was such a thing in fandoms), it’s the episode Twister.
The reason is that this episode is stuffed to the gills with horrifyingly bad science.
The monster of the week is… Are you ready for this? You might want to sit down. No, seriously, it’s kind of amazing, so be careful. Okay, here goes: the monster of the week is a shrew that was accidentally caught in a test to combine nuclear power and wind farms. This experiment fused the shrew to the resultant tornado, allowing it to attack and eat anything pulled into the tornado’s debris field.
And then the team defeated it but sending a really big fan into the tornado to reverse the wind.
Yes. That happened. And the fandom will punch your in the mouth if you say you liked it.
Well… I like it. Because it is the most tongue-in-cheek thing ever.
First of all, the fandom is angry at the idea of a shrew being fused with a tornado. Yet, they find not problem with the science that says nukes and pollution results in monsters so huge they break the square cube law. And also they can breathe atomic fire. I submit to you that this was the point.
Godzilla is nothing if not a walking poster boy against nuclear weapons and sometimes power. The fun irony is that nuclear is pretty much the safest kind per kilowatt hour we have all told (Even Fukushima will end up killing fewer people and things than the average coal plant and that took a catastrophic failure to make happen), so obviously, the idea of combining nuclear and wind power is a jab at that. Hey look, wind power made a tornadic shrew.
Also, am I really so old and decrepit that I am the only one who remember this movie? And also how the plot was resolved but throwing a thing into the tornado (that wasn’t even meant to stop it), which made all the danger go away forever?
The whole episode was a clever joke, but NO ONE got it and now it is reviled.
This is a lesson every creator needs to learn: Not everything will be taken in the spirit in which it was created.
If you got to the Amazon page for Children of Agmar right now, the only review is complaining about the length and saying it doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. If that’s how they feel, that’s how they feel and I’m sorry. If that’s how YOU feel, I’m sorry. But for me, I thought I was doing something different and following a character arc as the main one:
SPOILERS Pele discovers a flaw within herself and tries some self improvement. At first she tries to fix it herself and failed, only to have things improved when she lets her friends (and also Ru) help, only to then find out how much damage she’s actually done. She then attempts to find a way to fix it, only to find the price too onerous. END SPOILERS
City of Bards is about her finding help on her terms and also a thing with Ru which is going to be awesome. It’s not what I’ve done before with the series, and I thought I could get away with it because it was a new book 1, but obviously not. I’m just going to have to learn from the response and recalibrate.
Speaking of recalibration…
‘Formula’ Is Not Bad. It’s How You Use It
Almost every episode of GtS is a standard Monster of the Week type thing. There is very little deviation (sometimes it’s a robot! Sometimes the humans are the real problem!).
Most episodes work like this: team finds out about monster activity, monster attacks, team deduces things about the monster, then Godzilla kicks its ass. It’s fairly comparable to action shows of its time, like Power Rangers, where everything was just a lead-up to a fight.
But where GtS stands out is that they really go out of their way to make the monsters of the week and their environments unique as well as the ongoing human drama among the cast. We go from a literal rat hunt in New York City, to deep-sea battles, to full-episode references not only to classic Godzilla movies like Destroy All Monsters, and Godzilla vs king Kong, but they also do Tremors with giant ice voles and pull off a PG version of The Thing. That’s pretty diverse for a giant monster show, or an action show of the late 90’s.
The lesson here is that it isn’t that something is formulaic that makes it bad; it’s having a lack of variance in the formula. As I’ve covered before, a formula that allows you to tell a lot of stories and keep them fresh is a storytelling engine and it’s a very good thing.
And that’s it for this week and our foray into the lessons writers can learn from Godzilla: the series.
Next week, some more discussion of Wold of Ere D20. I’ve gone back and re-thought some stuff and I’d like to see what you folks think!
By the way, I’m part of an indie author bundle over on our friends at DriveThruFiction. If you haven’t gotten Rune Breaker: The Complete Saga yet, you can get it and a bunch of other indie fantasy and sci-fi at a nice discount.