The unreliable universe

The concept in modern pop culture narrative fiction of transporting the main characters to an alternate version of reality goes way back. Obviously it was a mainstay of many of the stories of Philip K. Dick, and Bradbury’s brilliant short story “A Sound of Thunder” pretty much set the bar for nearly everything that has followed.

“The Twilight Zone” had quite a few episodes that played around with the concept, but I think that the real introduction of this idea into what most people still think of as contemporary pop culture was Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future”. I think the success of that movie was probably one of the main factors in the green-lighting 10 years later of the television show “Sliders”. Unfortunately “Sliders” was only allowed three good seasons before it was destroyed by incompetent executives at the Fox network.

But I think it was Joss Whedon, in the fifth season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, who first (correct me if I’m wrong) hit upon the idea of having the main characters, the ones the audience identifies with and cares about, shift their own perceptions with the changing reality so that they themselves believe that nothing has changed. In particular, the universe was altered so that a new character (Dawn) suddenly appeared, and all the other characters believed she had always been there.

From a writer’s point of view this notion opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities that Whedon only began to tap. We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Why not construct a narrative around the concept of the unreliable universe?

What I’m envisioning here is an episodic structure: In every episode a new character might be introduced or an existing character might be taken away. The other characters have no concept that anything has changed – only the audience knows that the universe has shifted. For example, one morning grandma comes down to breakfast, even though there had never been a grandma on the show. Nobody is surprised, except of course the audience. As far as the other characters on the show are concerned, she has always been there.

This conceit would allow both writer and audience endless opportunities to explore different dimensions of the characters they have come to know, as the dynamics of family, friendships and romantic attachments continually shift into new configurations.

But what would be a good name for such a show? I don’t know about you, but I would call it “Every day another Dawn”.

One thought on “The unreliable universe”

  1. There is a movie called Dark City in which each day the characters wake up to a new episodic structure without realizing anything has changed. Their names, relationships, circumstances all seem perfectly normal to them. The drama derives, of course, from a man who begins to realize that something is not quite right and begins to uncover the truth. It’s a fabulous movie, IMHO, but it didn’t get quite the play it deserved.

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