Dramaturgery: Revolution, Part 2 (Premise)

Posted: September 7, 2012 in Braak, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , , , ,

There are two ways to go with a story like Revolution, and I think Moff is right in one sense, in that just how a society breaks down in the sudden absence of electricity could be pretty interesting, and I think the other sense is how a society builds itself up after the apocalypse, and in the absence of electricity. There are a lot of pretty neat questions to be asked: what is the individual’s responsibility to the state? How much security is worth sacrificing for the sake of stability? Should civilization be about building bigger states, or should we be content with small agrarian communities? What exactly IS civilization – the material well-being of its people, art, culture, roads, what is it? What is the value of science – is it inevitably good? Should it be controlled? By whom? What about kings? Democracy? What about religion – how can it benefit a society’s build? How can it be a hindrance? How exactly do all these things come together, and what is the purpose of them?

I know that a lot of people say that a show like Revolution is “about the characters” (except no, it’s obviously going to be about turning on the electricity), and to those people I say this: your sense of nationalism, patriotism, piety, honor, duty, curiosity, ambition – those things are all character traits. The question of whether or not you have a moral obligation to oppose an oppressive state, that IS a character question, it is a personal question, and it is an important question. Oh, sure, questions about “what is friendship?” and “what is family?”, those are fine questions to ask, too (they’d be better if they didn’t end up inevitably being “family is what you make of it, and it sticks together no matter what” just because we’ve seen it a million times; at least the Greeks had the sense to recognize that sometimes “family” meant “murdering, incestuous cannibal maniacs”), but you don’t need to end the world to ask them (or, at least, ending the world doesn’t enable you to ask them particularly more clearly).

I will now do Dramaturgery on “Revolution,” and it’s probably going to be a lot more extensive than my previous Dramaturgeries. This show might possibly still turn out to be good, I don’t know — I am not saying that it won’t be and, honestly, I actually am a little optimistic that it could be — but however it progresses, I am leaving this here as a clear way the show COULD have gone, and how a show with a similar premise, similar characters, and even a similar personal and moral center could have both asked these big questions, and also had a bunch of sword fights and a heroine with a bow and arrow.

Most befirstly, I am changing the premise somewhat. These changes are going to seem extensive, but I think that they aren’t actually as extensive as all that – that including these changes would not, in other words, significantly alter the essential premise of the show as evinced by the pilot. What these changes will do is add a layer of specificity that will both hold the world together a little more firmly, and provide a good starting point for both the personal and the social questions. It goes without saying, I hope, that this is backmatter that will inform the episodes, but only be explained when it’s both 1) necessary, and 2) possible to do it organically.

(This section turned out to be huge, so you might want to go see how I just revamped the plot, and only refer back here if there’s something you want to know about the backmatter.)

How the Power Went Out

Since I have absolutely no idea how this was supposed to happen, or what the conspiracy to keep(?) it off could possibly be, I’m going to leave it largely untouched, and just make up some ideas when I need them. Figure this is the same: Scientists have found a Way to turn off the power, there is a Conspiracy to Keep it Off.

WHY the Power Went Out

I don’t know what the reason for this is in the show, so this is a spot where I’m going to make something up. It’s 2014, and War is Beginning. Someone is precipitating a nuclear exchange, and our scientist, Jeff Matheson, in order to prevent a global thermonuclear war, turns off the electricity. Some missiles are fired, but when the electricity is shut down, the rest of the missiles stay in their silos. This is still pretty catastrophic, though – some cities are wiped out by nuclear explosions and radiation, armies were deployed and a whole bunch of them died (entire navies, if you think about it, must have starved to death at sea with no way to move their aircraft carriers), and yes, planes fell out of the sky, dams burst, et cetera and so forth.

Worse, some nations had biological weapons that they deployed, too – there were ten years of plagues with no medicine to treat them; famines as farms collapsed; civil wars fought with guns and knives as the remaining population killed each other over resources that were getting increasingly difficult to acquire. Hundreds of millions of people died.

It is DEFINITELY debatable as to whether or not shutting off the power was the right thing for Jeff Matheson to do and we’ll never know the answer, but that action serves as the basic question that will drive the entire series: who has the right to make that decision?

The Way We Live Now


That’s right. A century of plagues and famines and civil wars. There is literally no one left alive who remembers the world the way it was. Most of the population is illiterate (teaching reading took a back seat to basic surviving) and so can’t even read books about science or history. I don’t like the fifteen-years-later idea because so much of it feels like a kind of smug, disaster tourism: “Look there’s the ruins of O’Hare airport, I guess PLANES aren’t any good anymore!” “Oh, of course GOOGLE is meaningless here in the future!” This is not interesting – of course planes are useless, and of course no one cares about Google, that goes without saying. What needs saying is how culture was rebuilt in the ruins of the old world, HOW we survive without Google, what we do now instead of plans. After the interruption of continuity precipitated by the blackout and the years of disasters, a century is time for a new, ad-hoc culture to form, one that reinvents the trappings of the old world into something new (so, both on a practical level – “look, they’re recycling clothes!” but also “look, they’re recycling ideas whose meanings they only partly understand!”; see, it works on both a practical and a thematic level when you do it like this). The slightly altered WHY of the power also gives us new and interesting obstacles – things that may not come up directly, but which we can hold in our back pockets and use for later: the constant, looming threat of plague; the fact that whole swaths of the planet might be radioactive desert; mass graves full of people whose lives and deaths are a mystery.

There’s a New Republic centered around Chicago (figure New York and Washington both took direct nuclear hits). Chicago is a relatively thriving city, having built itself back up on trade, fishing, and farming the nearby farmland which is fertile again/still. There’s a steady business in salvage – people from all over the country bring stuff that they’ve found to Chicago, where it’s traded or bought. The area directly around Chicago is stable, if still wild: there are definitely bandits, mercenary armies, independent militias. The areas beyond Chicago are sometimes empty, sometimes uninhabitable, sometimes home to other armies who mean to conquer their neighbors.

The Factions of the City:

The Senate

(It’s the case that a lot of these organizations purposefully use titles from the Old World, out of a sense of tradition now, originally as part of an attempt to maintain continuity or to evoke the mythology of the golden era.) The Senate is made up of the landowners from around the city – most of the farms are worked by tenant farmers who take on debt in order to get a plot of land, and generally spend their lives working that debt off; the tenant farmers don’t pay taxes, because they don’t own their produce. They have quotas to fill, and get to keep whatever is left, until the value of their debt is paid. In theory, you can eventually pay off your farm. In practice, unless you find buried treasure or something, no one ever does. The Senate has nominal power, but in practice is largely advisory. They have money, though, and each Senator typically commands his own militia to protect his lands, so certainly some senators are more powerful than others.

Sebastian Monroe

Mayor of Chicago, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Free America, Executive of the Senate and People of Free America. (See what I mean about the titles? You’ll notice that the more personal power someone has, the more they’ll couch their titles in terms of being a functionary of a free state, rather than a king – Monroe studiously avoids “royal” titles.) Monroe is in his SEVENTIES, which means he’s one of the few people who’s heard about the old world directly. His father and grandfather were military men, and he considers himself a direct descendent of the American government, the last best hope for a free society, et cetera. He is a visionary, with plans to rebuild the American Republic across the land, obviously by stomping on anything that gets in the way. He’s a convert to the Church of the Trials (I’ll get to that) but not a believer, and has a good relationship with the Church of the Book. He’s also preoccupied with information about the Old World and studious is rigorously – in fact, this sets up another major thematic conflict in the story, between Monroe and Charlie (our protagonist); Monroe is trying to re-create the Old World (by rebuilding America but ALSO by trying to figure out how to turn the power on), while Charlie has no memory of the Old World and will eventually decide to help create a new one.

IMPORTANTLY, Monroe has, at the time of the pilot, at long last found out about the program to turn the lights out, and finally tracked down the name of the family that was involved in it. He’s been sending out his guys to find the descendants of Jeff Matheson, hoping that he’d somehow passed down the information to his children. (I am imagining Monroe having recovered a filmstrip from the 70s about the nascent project, and using some insane machine with lenses and candles to watch it.)

The Armies

Each senator has their own militia, for one. There is also a City Police (commanded by the Mayor of Chicago), who are armed with swords, cudgels, and the occasional rifle, and the Army of Free America. The AFA is the state army, they’ve got bolt-action rifles, but not automatics – bullets in this world are very expensive, because Monroe offers ridiculously high prices for them (they’re rare, too, since no one’s completely sure how to start making them again). Senatorial militias aren’t allowed to use firearms, so it’s in most peoples’ interests to, if they find bullets, just sell them to Monroe. The AFA is commanded by the Commander-in-Chief (also Monroe – you see what he did here? Consolidated power?), so that means there is functionally one army in the city, and a couple dozen Senatorial militias, all of whom have individual agendas. (I don’t know what all this would be used for; I just know that I’d rather have a setting in which I’ve got a whole bunch of different rival factions whose power struggles might not become a prominent part of the story, then start writing a story only to discover that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to be on different sides.)

The Secret Service:

Not the president’s bodyguard – there are about two-hundred…”private investigators” or “inquisitors” or spies, I guess. They are the Executive’s chief secret enforcers (some are less secret than others — they don’t dress in identifying ways, or wear uniforms or anything, but some people are “known” to be members of the Service), hanging out, infiltrating, unearthing threats to the Free State. They do have automatic pistols, and are the only ones with access to Monroe’s slowly growing hoard of guns and bullets. Giancarlo Esposito’s character is a member of the Secret Service, and has been sent around (as was the case in the pilot, kind of) trying to find the Mathesons.

The Two Churches

This is a misnomer, really there are dozens of different churches and religions that grew up or solidified in the past hundred years, but there are two major factions that operate in Chicago. The Church of the Trials, which started as a fundamentalist Christian sect and rapidly picked up a lot of other evangelical and apocalyptic followers, asserts that the last hundred years have been the Time of Trials, or the time of Tribulation (citing the sudden impossibility of electricity as proof of God’s intervention), and asserting that it is almost over, and soon Jesus will return and lead everyone up into heaven for the Final Judgment. This Church’s administration tends to exhibit some of the worse attributes of Christian Fundamentalism – it tends to be intolerant, patriarchal, anti-intellectual, domineering, and inflexible. However, not everyone who is a member is like that, and in fact there are plenty of good people who belong to this Church – they’re moved by a genuine hope that all of their troubles are soon going to be over (you see, another major theme in the story: IS hope actually that good?). And the Church, as one of the first organized bodies after the blackout, did in fact do a lot of good in terms of alleviating the damage caused by the century of horror: they were charitable, they served as a functional law court after the fall of the government (and still hold a powerful command of the legal system in the city).

The second church is the Church of the Book; they believe the crisis was man-made in nature. They’re essentially a contemplative order of monks who send their members out in the world to collect and accumulate…books. Books, records, documents, anything that they can find and maintain. Their monks are also trained to fight, usually trained scientists and detectives, with years of experience surviving on their own, fighting off brigands, &c – the Bookkeepers are a sort of combination of Shaolin Monks and itinerant book-collectors. They are religious, but their actual religious belief tends to be more universalist than anything else, and as such is more tolerant.

They aren’t all good, though – the Church of the Book’s prime directive is that no one else should have control of the information from the Old World. They preserve knowledge, yeah, but they don’t really like to share it – they dole it out in dribs and drabs to Monroe and the Senate, but only after the information they’re going to give up has been carefully-vetted and found to be largely harmless. They’re literate, but they don’t encourage literacy; in fact, the technological level of the city might be substantially higher if the Church was freer with its books, and this is yet ANOTHER theme of the show: Is technology bad? And, maybe more importantly, who gets to decide whether it should be shared? Ultimately, someone who is either the head of the church, or very high up in the church, is part of the Conspiracy to Keep the Power Off.

  1. […] Threat Quality Press The truth is, you can electrify pretty much anything. « Dramaturgery: Revolution, Part 2 (Premise) […]

  2. Moff says:

    You keep saying things like “because Moff is right (kind of)” and “I think Moff is right in one sense,” when I feel like it should be INCONTROVERTIBLY CLEAR that I am totally and always right, in every sense.

    Also: “It’s about the characters” has become, like, the single most effective thing anyone could possibly say about a show if they want to drive me up a fucking wall.

  3. braak says:

    I would say that that is controvertible.

  4. Moff says:


  5. braak says:

    What are you going to do? You don’t do anything.

  6. Moff says:

    I am going to NOT STAND. I am lying down right now, in fact. It is super comfortable.

  7. Just came here, many weeks after the fact, to validate your (both of you) sense of humor. Laughed my ass off.

  8. BTW, I love the idea that your Charlie is motivated by revenge. How often are women (in popular culture–I’m not a connoisseur of media, I’ll admit) in stories shown to be motivated by revenge that isn’t merely payback for violence inflicted on them? Normally, the female in a story is attacked and she brutally avenges herself and it only further reinforces the notion that women are tasked with job of protecting themselves, not society at large. But already, in your story, you have a woman who is racked with guilt and finds purpose in the plan to take that mother out, an eye for an eye. Now, that deals with the concepts of pride, identity, guilt, loss and the destruction of all that a person has built and taken for granted. That’s normally a man’s story. Stories about women (at least the ones that have any direction at all) are not about identity so much as negotiating power dynamics both internally and externally. You’ve completely thrown that out the window and imagined Charlie as a character who not only knows she has power (to kill, to survive) but also has a general code of conduct (“she’ll kill when she has to but not when she doesn’t.”). That leaves a space to be creative in a way that is uncommon territory. Great stuff!

  9. braak says:

    Yeah, it’s interesting — I’m working on another project right now, where the main character is a woman who is on a quest for vengeance after someone else was killed, and I was realizing just how uncommon a trope that is. Like we think of revenge as being an okay thing to do in response to personal injury, because that’s sort of acceptably moral, but vengeance is a lot harsher, and maybe there’s a lot of cultural resistance to the notion of female characters being that harsh.

    Whatever, though, she is hell of going on a quest for revenge.

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