Storytelling as Jazz

A year ago I posted about my enthusiasm for Seth MacFarlane’s show the Orville. I have just watched Season 2, Episode 8: “Identity, Part 1”. If you have not seen the episode yet, I highly recommend that you do so. This posting includes spoliers.

** Spoiler Alert **

In my previous post I described the Orville as homage, rather than parody. Here I want to explore the value of this homage approach. This episode has elements of many, many classic sci-fi shows:
Star Trek TNG’s “Best of Both Worlds”;
Star Wars Prequel portrayals of Coruscant;
Empire Strikes Back’s cloud city of Bespin (and the floating pallet);
Battlestar Galactica (both the original 1978 and 2003 reboot series);
A.I. (2001) and I, Robot (2004);
Dr. Who’s Cybermen;
the Day the Earth Stood Still (esp. the 1951 original);
and the Terminator.
It feels like all of these inspirations have been used to weave this world, but none specifically as an ironic or overt set of references. It did not feel derivative, but rather the way that a rapper, a jazz musician, or J.S. Bach would incorporate well-known melodies into new improvisations. MacFarlane gave himself license to do this because he claimed from the outset that he is a fan of previous shows. He seems to take the vocabulary they have created and use it almost as pre-mixed paints, or collage materials, freeing him to focus on his priority: the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and the story-arc of how those relationships are changing.

Before copyright locked stories and melodies in stasis for decades, this was the way storytelling was done. The Grimm brothers documented fairy tales as they were being told in one place and time in the 19th century. The Elder and Younger Eddas captured some of the Norse Myths as told by very different storytellers. There is a medieval song I like to sing, which not only has multiple versions, it is even known by two names: “Los Bilbilicos” (the nightingales) or “La Rosa Enfloresce” (the blooming rose). So far as I know it has been sung for 500 years, mostly by Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain after the Christian Inquisition was declared against them in 1492. Any living song, any living thread of storytelling was incorporated by the performer and relayed through their own experiences (I have dedicated performances of this song to refugees across the world). Even as the core elements remained identifiable over centuries, what audiences heard was each specific performer’s retelling. The performer often includes details and references which are familiar to the audience from their time and place. These details make the performance more relevant, and make the jokes both intelligible and more pointed as satire or veiled criticism.

We have lived with intellectual-property control over creative works for two centuries. This seems to be a moment where we are struggling with its implications. On the one hand, maintaining temporary-monopoly claim over specific re-tellings is the way we fund current productions. On the other hand, the Star Trek television (CBS) and film (Paramount) franchises seem to be interfering with each others’ liberty to focus on strong storytelling. Going back to the original intention of copyright: a temporary monopoly of 7 years, renewable once, so that the artists could recoup their money–but not to interfere with future developments of the work. Star Trek TOS was aired more than 50 years ago. Maybe some aspect of the artwork should be trademarked in perpetuity to protect the brand reputation. But wringing every last license-fee out of the maximum-extension of IP control seems to be strangling the original franchise. A better option is to adopt the jazz strategy: freedom to perform respectful homages.

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