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Raiders of the Lost Story: Alex Boyd on the Return of Ongoing Narrative.

It bodes well that people seem to prefer ongoing narratives again.


I read only literature, but often turn to something closer to complete escapism for my film and television: Sci-Fi, mysteries, and lately I’ve discovered film serials. Aimed at children and youth, and told in chapters that preceded a feature film, they ran from the silent era to the 1950s, when TV episodes made them obsolete. 

The acting is very nearly always stilted, the pace frequently a little slow, and the special effects clunky, but it can be fun to watch something that isn’t quite as absurdly polished as modern action films, and they have other, interesting qualities. They’re often ongoing stories, told in 12 or 13 chapters, with cliffhangers (literal ones) at the end of each chapter to keep viewers engaged.

When television replaced serials, it was to spend decades producing interchangeable episodes that would eventually be ready for syndication five days a week in any particular order. Only recently, with people carrying home videos to watch (and presumably always able to see something from the beginning) has television returned to stories with a beginning, middle and end. And let’s face it, it’s much more satisfying. I wonder if it has anything to do with film serials having been produced in a more literate era, before television eroded reading skills, and to a certain extent our interest in evolving characters. If that’s fair to say, it bodes well that many people now seem to really prefer ongoing narratives again. I know The Simpsons is still going after many years, but I’ve recently heard it described as something closer to an “ongoing cultural hallucination” than a show.

Finally, it’s interesting to look at stories that are clearly the origin of so many others: Zorro’s Fighting Legion has stunts that clearly inspired some of the material in Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is itself a tribute to film serials) and The Phantom Empire might sound like a lost Star Wars film, but it’s actually an early ancestor, with Gene Autry battling a strange underground civilization and stopping regularly to sing country songs (or he loses his contract at the ranch, and we wouldn’t want that). I’m not sure if this will translate into any writing for me (it’s a little tempting to write a poem about The Green Hornet and his miraculous escapes, considering he can drive into an exploding gas station and then simply dust himself off and walk away) but it’s certainly a fascinating diversion.  

Alex Boyd has published work in magazines and newspapers such as Taddle Creek, The Globe and Mail and on websites such as Nthposition.  Recently, he helped establish Best Canadian Essays, selecting work from Canadian magazines.  He edits the online poetry journal Northern Poetry Review, and his poetry books include Making Bones Walk and The Least Important Man.  

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