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"Burning Man"

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ZeusFaber

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Welcome back to the official VS5 blog. With the season now complete, I can now go back and get caught up a bit with these entries which slipped a little as the final mile of the marathon took precedence. This time around we’ll go over episode 18, “Burning Man”, which was written by Ian Austin. It’s essentially the last ever standalone for the show, the last self-contained normal episode if you will before the big finale, the two-part story of “Resurrection” and “Resolution”.

In some respects this was one of the most troubled episodes we had on the board all year. It was originally slated to air much earlier in the season and was set to be written by another staff writer, but when things changed and people departed it kept getting pushed back and back and ended up as the last thing to come to fruition. Fortunately for us, we were very lucky to get Ian Austin to come in and do two episodes for us, which I mentioned back with “Critical Mass”, which was his first, and he did the same last-minute job for us here with “Burning Man”. For that, we’ll always be very grateful. Nonetheless, there was some concern that this one was dead on arrival. In a way, it might have been a little unfair of us to lump this unfinished story onto Ian, and in retrospect it might even have turned out better if we had just gone with an entirely new, original premise. Instead though, Ian was burdened down with the unfinished threads that had been lingering around for some time, and was thus given something of an impossible task to weave them all together into a decent episode. So, ultimately, I would say that “Burning Man” was probably one of our least-successful episodes, but for the above reasons it’s entirely my fault, and no slight against Ian. After all, a chef is only as good as the ingredients he is given, and we probably gave him some rather rotten and past-their-sell-by-date ingredients for this one.

Because of all these factors, the script here went through quite a lot of changes and revisions before the final version aired. We had a few pages done by the original writer, but there was really hardly anything to work with there, so we just ended up tossing that out completely and letting Ian start over. Even after his draft was turned in it went through a few more changes right up until the last minute. The teaser that we have here though is, by and large, intact and reasonably effective. I like the fact that we get to mix in the point-of-view shots which was a particular hallmark of the show’s first season. The idea behind the story was that this man saw himself as burning with hellfire and suffering for his sins, so wanted to turn that outward onto others by starting fires, and because of that, point-of-view was very important.

As we head into Act One, the way Frank becomes involved in the case is a little different than usual, which I’ve repeatedly said is something we always strive for. He gets involved this time by seeing an article in a newspaper, which perhaps brings back memories of how Frank first got involved in the case back in the pilot episode. That’s certainly not an intentional resonance here, all that comes up in the finale. Instead, in this case, it was born from an original idea that had Frank getting an anonymous tip delivered by a newspaper with a circled article. However, as time went on, we realised that that never went anywhere, and there was no way to work in any notion of a source or a tip. It didn’t make sense at all, quite frankly, so that was dropped entirely, but we retained the part of the newspaper, only now it is just an innocent, everyday article, not a deliberate act of drawing Frank’s attention to something by an outside agent.

Still, that does raise some problems of its own. You could question why Frank chooses this particular case from this particular article on this particular day. There has to be loads of crime articles in the newspaper every morning, so why doesn’t Frank pick one to pursue every day? That’s a bit of a problem here that is never entirely reconciled. Part of the problem was that the first draft of the script painted Frank as quite an over psychic, not just profiling through instinct and intuition, but actually getting visions out of nowhere that offered clues with no basis in anything he already knew. This has been a recurring point of confusion throughout the entire history of the show, with Chris Carter’s original pilot making it very clear that Frank was definitely not psychic, but later episodes and seasons confusing this point and making his facility into supernatural ability. In VS5, we’ve always tried to stay true to the original idea that Frank was anything but psychic, but the first draft of “Burning Man” kind of flied in the face of that. So that’s one reason why a number of elements had to be rewritten as I took my pass on the script. Again, that’s not Ian’s fault, it’s a case of providing bad ingredients in the first place for him to work with.

We then go to scene featuring our primary antagonist of the episode, named Douglas Copp. As with the teaser, I’m quite happy with the point-of-view shots we get here, showing his distorted view of the world, but I’m less happy with his dialogue. He is essentially reciting encyclopaedic details about fire here, which serves the purpose of demonstrating his obsession, but at the same time it feels a little odd that he would be saying all this out loud and just to himself. It just feels a bit forced, a bit too unnatural.

The following scenes between Frank and Locke were restructured slightly to set it in the morgue to show Frank coming down onto the case of his own free will, having been prompted by the newspaper article earlier. As before, this was necessary because the original draft had Frank coming in and basically telling Locke what he had seen in a vision and wondering what it all meant. Like I said earlier though, this is essentially backwards. Frank’s flashes are meant to be him putting together the clues he has already found, not receiving clues out of the ether and then investigating because of them. Consequently, the way Frank approached the case had to be retooled somewhat. So now he is concerned that the arsonist is going to escalate, which helps explain at least a little why he’s involving himself in this case over others. There’s also a nice moment where Frank anticipates Locke’s disbelief and unwillingness to follow his lead, but instead he surprises him by trusting his judgement. That’s a good character beat, as it shows how Locke has grown and developed over the course of the season, and isn’t still a one-note objector that hasn’t changed since “The Begotten”.

When we cut back to Douglas on the streets, we hear the voice of Joan for the first time, who we learn much later is actually the voice of Joan of Arc, or at least what Douglas thinks in his mind is Joan of Arc. This was a very, very late addition to the script on m part when I was doing the final pass on it. There was a single, almost throwaway line to Joan of Arc in Ian’s draft, and that prompted me to think it would really be interesting to incorporate this further and make it a more central part of the episode, to actually have him hearing voices and think it was the voice of Joan of Arc, and for us to actually hear that voice too rather than just the standard crazy man talking. This also helped to solve one of the problems with Douglas’s talking to himself all the time, which as I mentioned above just didn’t sound right. Much of the dialogue given to the voice of Joan here is actually stuff that was originally written for Douglas by Ian, but I thought it would play much better to have this being said to Douglas by Joan, rather than just have Douglas rambling to himself around town. So, in changing it in this way, it allowed us to retain the basic essence of Ian’s work and writing, but just transplant it slightly in a way that, hopefully, improved the finished product.

The act-out here, with Douglas burning himself with the lighter, is also quite an effective one in its own way, I think. It’s more of a psychological scare, rather than a big outright “boo”. Those can sometimes be the more interesting, and I think that’s certainly the case here.

As we head into Act Two, we probably come to one of the slowest parts of the narrative. I think this is another bit of a weakness to the episode, in that not a great deal happens from beginning to end, and there is an awful lot of time spent by our protagonists just sitting around talking. People say that is the death of drama, and you could make a legitimate criticism of this episode on that score. As I said before, the problem was really that the original concept didn’t have enough flesh to it. There wasn’t enough meat on its bones in the outline stage, so it really was a tough ask to make something substantial and pacy and eventful about it. At its most basic level, it’s a story about a man who kills at the beginning and gets caught up with at the end, with very little in between.

Much of that in between is spent with Frank and Miranda profiling together. We wanted to have Miranda involved in this episode, as we wanted to keep her relationship with Frank in the audience’s minds and cement it as something serious by the time the finale came around. So that’s a plus point. It’s also kind of good to show the profiling process and return to that detailed and precise level of analysis that we take more and more for granted as the series has gone on. That’s another positive. But at the same time it can tend to drag and get a bit laborious, lacking in action and lacking in events in favour of just sitting and talking. You could also argue that it says something a bit negative about Frank and Miranda’s relationship if they spend all their time talking about work and this kind of thing over dinner. Of course, that’s not the case, but these scenes can risk making it come across that way, as if they don’t connect on a personal level beyond all that stuff. Hopefully people didn’t read that into it, because that’s not how we want them to come across.

As originally scripted, all of this profiling work took place in the restaurant, but in editing I decided to split some of it up and have a chunk of it take place back at Frank’s house, just to vary the locations and keep it fresh to some degree. It clocks up quite a number of pages, all this dialogue, so I thought it would be a good idea to move the characters around a bit and not have them stuck in the same place the whole time.

In between those scenes we go to Locke at the police department going over the reports with a junior colleague named Eddie. To some degree, this feels a bit redundant. We have Locke saying that he prefers to read stuff of paper rather than off a computer screen, which is a little kind of human beat to play, but besides that it doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than to remind us that Locke still exists and he’s still working on the case. The character of Eddie is also a little redundant. He only appears in two brief scenes and doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than to give Locke someone to bounce ideas off. There’s also the problem that Locke tells him they’re going down to look over the crime scene, but then they never do, and Eddie just disappears from the episode. In retrospect, it would have been better to either include Eddie in more of a substantial role, or else eliminate him altogether. As it stands, he straddles that line and feels like a spare part.

Act Two then ends with another immolation scene, which keeps the stakes high, and as we head into Act Three we finally get away from the sitting around talking scenes and get Frank and Brad out into the action, at least to an extent. The two of them then come across Eve, which has some of its own problems in that she just appears out of nowhere. Frank also makes quite a leap in saying that she’s a hooker that Douglas visited but couldn’t perform, all after just glancing at her. Admittedly, Frank has been known to make some leaps in his time, but this one was a bit too much. In some ways, I think what Ian might have been getting at hear is that Eve could have been stretched to represent some kind of angelic figure, and I was tempted to make more of this in my pass but ultimately decided against it. The trouble with that was that there was no hint of it earlier in the episode, and nothing of it later, so it didn’t quite match up to the story that was being told. It would have changed the tone and subject matter quite substantially to suddenly have switched to a more supernatural kind of thing just for this scene with Eve. We had talked about wanting to do more with angelology back when we first started plotting the season, and to an extent I think that’s something we didn’t quite fulfil as much as we wanted to. We had done a Sammael episode back in “Gotterdammerung”, and there had been talk about using one of the other angel characters we had seen in the series named Balthazar, but ultimately that never came to pass. I wonder now if we might have done something like that here, and if it would have improved things, or if it would have compromised the idea of a grounded standalone before the finale. It also might have suffered coming on the back of “One and Many”, which was fairly intensive in that whole the Devil vs. God stuff, so it might have been incongruous to have an angelic focus in the very next episode. Either way, there just wasn’t time to restructure the foundations of the episode so substantially, which is what would have had to have been done to make Eve into an angel character. Perhaps it’s best left as it is, but like Eddie, she does disappear from the story awfully fast.

As we head into Act Four, we start to set up the endgame at the fuel depot, which was a location I chose ahead of Ian’s call for an incinerator. One reason for that is that we had already featured one incinerator scene at the end of “Critical Mass”, albeit a small one, and another was that it just upped the ante a little bit and gave us some big tankers and oil pipes that could make for a more dramatic and risky standoff.

We wanted to keep Miranda involved at this point, and wanted to give her a chance to solve the problem as it were, rather than just Frank alone as is perhaps usually the case. That did present something of a logistical challenge though, as Miranda had to get down there but wasn’t directly involved in the case the way she was back in “Sleep of Reason”. The only real way to have her be there was for Frank to ask for her specifically. That raises the question of whether Frank would really put her in that dangerous situation. On one level, a strictly character-based level, I can’t quite buy the idea of Frank doing that, but on a story level it really is a necessity, and it is the only way to get her down there. So, this had to be one of those cases of sacrificing one thing for the sake of the story.

When they catch up with Douglas, it’s essentially a talk-down scene. These are always difficult to make work. For the sake of drama, you can’t really have the villain be talked down and give up, because that’s just not all that interesting. So, you usually have to have them get to that point where they’re almost there but then something snaps them back and the plan gets shot to hell for one reason of another. But then, because of that, these things always tend to turn out the same sort of way, and it’s very difficult to make it original and fresh.

In this case, Miranda almost gets to him, and she’s the one that instinctively figures out who Joan is during the moment, which is good, and better because we the audience aren’t clued in to what she’s happened upon just yet. I’m not sure whether anyone reading could have put two and two together by this point or not, whether they might have guessed the Joan of Arc connection, or whether they needed to wait for the payoff when Miranda tells the others about it later.

To end this standoff, which more often than not ends in a gunshot, we had something just marginally different in it being a self-immolation scene. He just plunges the lighter onto his chest and sets himself ablaze while Frank just gets Miranda out of the way in time. Hopefully that’s satisfying enough, and hopefully it’s fresh enough in the sense that Douglas doesn’t quite die but is left barely alive in the hospital by the end of the episode. That’s when Miranda spills the beans about Joan of Arc, but I’m glad that she doesn’t do it by drawing a picture and putting it in a frame, just kind of tosses it aside in mid-conversation.

So, in the end, I don’t think “Burning Man” came out as one of our better entries in the season, but then again that’s hardly surprising given the problems we had with it over time. We’re still incredibly grateful for Ian for keeping this one on life-support though, and his coming in at the last minute to do a writing job at such short notice wont be forgotten. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have provided him something a bit better to work with.

In the next entry I will be rehashing part one of the two-part series finale, “Resurrection”. That’ll get done just as soon as I can muster it. Then there’ll just be one more episode to go over, and hopefully it wont be too far after the air-date. As ever, thanks for reading.

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