Grim dark stories

I was struck overnight by the thought that I’m very tired of grim-dark story-telling in Science Fiction/Fantasy entertainment. I feel like games, movies and TV have focused rather too heavily on this tone over the last few years. It’s a bit like the trends we’ve witnessed in gaming, and in MMORPGs specifically, if one studio has a successful action MMO then all the new MMOs have to be full-on-action, if another has a full-loot PVP game, all the others seem to follow suit with their new game developments. It seems almost everything is grim-dark at the moment.

Watching episode 2 of series 4 of Discovery got me thinking this as the series has taken a darker tone again. I’ll avoid plot-spoilers but there is a great loss at the start of the series. The second episode focuses a lot on the stresses caused by this and ends with a rather jarring bit of melodramatic dialogue. In the post-episode discussion we all agreed that the last scene sounded un-Star Trek in tone (over the top and very unscientific words from a science officer).

Another recent example was re-watching Star Wars Episode IX for the first time since the cinema over the Christmas break. As I thought the above over in my mind, I then considered the sequel trilogy (or whatever I’m supposed to call Episodes 7-9), and, again, just how unremittingly grim those films are compared to the end of the original trilogy.

TV series or films can, naturally, be written to be gritty or with horror elements. Here I’m writing more about the injection or twisting of a more optimistic tone into a darker one – I fear in many cases because writers either think that is “cool” or the current Zeitgeist. Given the last two years I would argue until I’m blue in the face that what the majority of us need is a lot more optimistic and escapist entertainment forms – not a dose of grim fantasy on top of the grim reality we live in! Star Trek to me is possibly the most optimistic mass market Sci Fi series, yet the two flagship TV series (Discovery and Picard) come across as rather grim and depressing to me – only the amazing animated series Lower Decks manages to continue a sense of that Next Generation-style optimism that I grew up with.

We intend to rewatch Star Wars 7 & 8 at some point, we only watched 9 out of sequence because of my Dad’s desire to see the one film. But the new trilogy starts off grim dark and only gets worse. I’ll avoid rehashing the entire plot here but the New Republic is nigh on destroyed from the get-go and the “heroes” have almost continuous set-backs. I could do several posts on how I would rather have seen the films re-imagined but the overview of it would be along the lines of:
Episode 7 – the Republic is flourishing, but then a menace is revealed and a single (but non-crushing) defeat of the main Republic fleet occurs near the end
Episode 8 – the Republic forces have to rally to contain the menace and to protect their endangered unity, personal drama for the heroes becomes the focus
Episode 9 – the Republic wins a key battle, but then the personal drama kicks into overdrive with a surprise twist and a shift to a more intense personal conflict (e.g. Jedi vs unmasked Sith) – note at no point is the entire Republic threatened with total annihilation by an impossibly large Sith fleet

In addition to being grimmer and darker with each series or expansion, TV, movies and games also seem to have a massive problem with “threat inflation”. Episode 7 starts with a lore-breaking super-weapon and then has to outdo even this in Episode 9 with a whole fleet of super-weapons. It just breaks any possible suspension of disbelief for me. I much prefer the personal conflicts and minor setbacks, followed by believable resolutions, that series like the Mandalorian and now the Book of Boba Fett are offering.

As for Discovery, I really liked the shift of the last series to the future and the eventual return to a more optimistic and exploration-focused Federation. But, of course, they immediately had to undo that tone in the first episode of series 4. I’m fatigued with “universe-ending” threats as a constant background or motivation – can we not have some breathing-spaces in-between the chaos?

Finally, I’d say that the Legion, Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands expansions for World of Warcraft are suffering from similar issues. This trilogy of expansions keeps on ratcheting up the threat levels and the grim-dark hopeless future for the game’s setting. While World of Warcraft has always had horror and grim warfare as thematic elements, I used to feel the game balanced it better with the overall tone of “being the hero” than it has done of late. Now it’s a familiar defeat, followed by setback, followed by atrocity and maybe a small victory at the end of the expansion; then in the next it’s immediately back on the defeat-train for another few content patches. What I’d say World of Warcraft desperately needs next expansion is an optimistic, exploration-focused setting with as little grimdark as possible!

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3 Responses to Grim dark stories

  1. bhagpuss says:

    I broadly agree. My problem with it is that that grimdark/horror seems to be the default setting right now. Almost everything I watch, play and read seems to incorporate what would once have been quite specifically “horror” genre tropes as a matter of course. It seems a bit lazy or at least rote. I suspect this is more of a trend than a substantive change. It will probably go out of fashion in time.

    I find the cultural drift towards a wider and less-nuanced acceptance of violence as both a solution and/or an entertainment more problematic, although I’m not sure to what degree this is a) a function of my own aging process and b) a reversal of previous, somewhat patrician and artificial blocks. I think its more a matter of degree than of substance although that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for me as an audience.

    I also think you point up one of the biggest problems with both of these trends, which is what happens when they impinge on new versions of existing properties. I have some serious reservations, for example, about the amorality and levels of violence in Titans because I grew up with the comics where that particular team was a bunch of brightly costumed, wisecracking teenagers, whereas I happily accept and enjoy significantly more disturbing content in The Umbrella Academy, for which I have no predetermined expectations.

    • Telwyn says:

      Titans is a particularly good example, Bhagpuss. We usually watch most new super-hero related series as my husband is a big fan of the genre but that was a particularly grotesque twist on a beloved and very witty animated series…

  2. everwake says:

    I don’t have a lot to add here other than I’ve been rewatching ST:TOS lately and it’s surprisingly grim dark on its own. The Enterprise and crew encounter a lot more world/galaxy/universe ending threats than I remembered. The body count in almost every episode is actually really jarring. They just end each episode with a resolution and a witty remark to brush it all of, which gives off more of a mood whiplash than anything.

    I think grimdark is just a lazy way to raise the stakes. If most bits of entertainment are doomed to be mediocre, then grimdark is just a product of that. We probably need to search outside the major IPs for better, more nuanced work.

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