When grimdark is too grim and too dark

Grimdark is popular these days. This did not begin with Game of Thrones but it certainly encouraged writers to consider more fatalistic story telling. It seems everyone wants to be gritty and serious and while it can work, I think it often falls flat.

Life is almost never truly grimdark. It can feel that way at times but even when we are on our deathbeds, it is often human nature to face the long night with humour. Setbacks hurt, but they tend to hurt more when we were genuinely hopeful of success.

I think this is often a problem with Grimdark. For the kick to really hurt, there had to be a realistic hope that the outcome would be positive. When the fifth awful thing happens in a row, not only can it seem trivial due to the existing situation, it becomes expected. Relentless grimdark is predictable and there were points in Game of Thrones (TV at least, I’ve not read the books) where I honestly lost interest due to how expected some of the deaths became.

It can also lead to unsympathetic characters. People surviving in grimdark universes are often shown at their worst. We don’t see the bright points of their personalities and the humour that often exists in real life is rarely present.

I want to use Star Gate Atlantis as a counter example. Bear with me, it’s a good one, I promise and if this is as geeky as you think this blog is going to get, wait till I put on my weeaboo glasses.

Star Gate Atlantis is not grimdark. It’s an adventure show using a plot of the week structure. One of the characters in the show is called Rodney McKay and he was there primarily as an engine for humour. He was awkward, arrogant and neurotic but ultimately sympathetic and entertaining. Over several series they built up another character, Katie, who was attracted to him despite his flaws. She was shown to have a seemingly endless supply of patience.

In season 4 there was an episode called Quarantine. In this episode, Mckay was trapped with Katie as the base went into lock-down. His neurosis and paranoia went into overdrive and over the episode, bit by bit, he finally managed to wear her down. What had been a cute ‘not quite relationship’ failed in a genuinely heart wrenching way. It was powerful because it had started on a high. Had Atlantis been a ‘grimdark’ show like the failed Stargate Universe (Apologies, I know it has its fan) then the effect would have been far less potent. If we didn’t like Mckay and didn’t care about him, this scene wouldn’t have been that memorable.

Grimdark can of course work. There have been several spectacular examples recently and it’s that success that draws so many people towards it, but I fear many looking to emulate that success are missing the pitfalls. Grimdark is not a style to be attempted loosely or you end up with Star Trek Discover (Apologies to the Star Trek Discovery fan as well!)

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