Check your references

I don’t know what in the world it is with us writers, but we have a weakness for references. There’s a character called Veronica in one of my Doctor Who stories and I did name her after Veronica Mars. I don’t think there’s any possible way you could know that, so there couldn’t be any possible way that you’d be taken out of the story for a moment as you recognised it.

But then I have another where I needed a name for a spaceship that collected junk from Earth orbit. Names are hard: I’ve spent about 20 hours this week working solely on finding a name for a particular project. Names are bastards. But anyway, in this Doctor Who, I wanted to suggest that there had been a series of these spaceships: in one early draft I really needed another ship to come save the day so I had to set up that there were several. That third ship vanished for good somewhere in a later draft and I mean for good in every sense. But I was still left with the main ship being called Salvage 2. And I did have the Doctor or someone ask what happened to Salvage 1.

Real answer? Salvage 1 was the name of a 1970s TV show that had a pretty good pilot film about building a rocket, going to the moon, salvaging all the junk that’s up there, bringing it back and selling it.

There is no possible chance that you know that show. Nobody knows that show. Except at least one person did. I read about it in a very nice review of that story and actually I liked that this reviewer and I shared such an obscure and yet fond memory.

I can’t remember the reviewer’s name, sorry. But the fact remains that even if he or she were entirely engrossed in my story, at that one moment he or she was propelled right out of it. Recognising, remembering, gone, out of it, vanished, over.

It is so very, very hard to get anyone into your story that choosing to throw them out again is insane. Yet I did it. I’m proud of that Doctor Who story but I’m not proud of having done that.

And this all comes up because on Monday I went to see Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters back to back. Don’t ask me why. Also don’t ask me how: I do not know how I fitted that in. You could ask me when, I could answer that. It was Star Trek late Monday afternoon, Ghostbusters late Monday evening.

Both of them have references. What I want to figure out is why I was entertained by the Ghostbusters ones and a tiny bit irritated by those in Star Trek. I do also want to tell you that I enjoyed both films and that they’re much better than their predecessors. Star Trek Beyond has flaws you see even as you’re watching it where Star Trek Into Darkness had so many of them that you didn’t have time to catch them all until you were walking out of the cinema wondering about refunds. And while people do seem divided over the Ghostbusters remake, it made me laugh aloud. I feel it’s a touch long for what it is but I shook with laughter and the original didn’t manage that for me.

All of Ghostbusters’ references are to that original film and actually, grief, there are so many. It’s only now, talking to you, that I realise it was a right torrent of references. For instance, I was tickled by the group trying to write adverts to post up around the city and beginning to suggest “If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood…” before getting interrupted. Similarly, there is a “Who’re you gonna call –” that also gets interrupted by something very similar to what you’re expecting the next word to be.

Then there are also lots of cameos from the original cast, some with dialogue from that first film. Plus the original film has that unexpectedly famous exchange about real wrath of God type stuff, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… The new one has an exchange about the phrase letting the cat out of the bag. It shouldn’t be that close but it comes at the same point in the story, it comes at a length, it works.

I think it works, though, because it’s done well. And by that I mean if you don’t know the original, you also don’t stop to notice that there is anything. It works on its own. Maybe my Salvage 2 stuff did too; I’d like to think so. The Ghostbusters cameos stretch that: a taxi driver gets far more screen time in a little scene than he would if he weren’t Dan Ackroyd from the first film, for instance. You’d feel there was something off with that even if you didn’t recognise him.

Maybe there is also an element that this is the first Ghostbusters remake. If they do the same in a second – and there will surely be a second, this is a very good movie and it’s performed well at the box office – then that’ll be harder to like.

It was certainly beyond hard to like in the second Star Trek film, Into Darkness. That film’s key emotional moments were entire remakes of previous Star Trek things and for God’s sake they weren’t that brilliant the first time. When you sit there in the cinema, all out of Malteasers, and you’re pointing at the screen saying “Cue Spock” and mouthing his dialogue ahead of him, it’s a little bit fair to say you’re well out of that story.

Star Trek Beyond has none of that. But it does have many references and jokes that rankled. Early on, for example, Captain Kirk is voicing over his log and conveying that the Enterprise’s five-year mission has been a bit dull so far, really, and he says something like “this is starting to feel a bit episodic”. It is a reference to how there have been more than 700 episodes of Star Trek on television and that would be fine except no human being has ever or will ever describe anything in their lives as episodic. Maybe epileptic sufferers. Maybe.

It is a gag that is only a gag. It is a gag that even if you don’t get it, it is still saying hello, I’m a gag.

I called this Self Distract “Check your references” and I meant it in the sense that the writer will have thought about getting the reference right, I meant it in the sense that as an audience we can see and look into these. But really I mean that writers, including me, should check this habit in the sense of stopping it.