"The Idiot Plot is a term devised for bad movies where the problems could be cleared up with a few words, if everyone in the plot were not an idiot. When the movie is good, it is kept afloat by the very frustration that sinks an Idiot Plot. There is a contest between what we want and what the characters do, and we get involved in spite of ourselves . . ." Roger Ebert, review of "Just Like Heaven," Chicago Sun-Times, September 16, 2005
Idiot Plot: A plot which works only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author's convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own. —attr. James Blish
OK, I don't get it. I just don't. A lot of stories lately seem to be taken from pure Stupid/Idiot Plots, and I don't get the appeal. More, I don't get why the creators don't notice that these are Stupid/Idiot Plots and fix them. To be fair, some of them may be unfixable, but not all of them. And it wouldn't take that much work, and it wouldn't take tons of money, and yet, there they sit, flying the Stupid Flag for all to see.
By "Stupid Plot" or "Idiot Plot," in this case, I do mean something slightly different than Ebert or Blish. In this case, a story where either the premise is so desperately flawed, or the execution so badly carried out, that you can see the Stupid on its face. It's not subtle, it's not understated. And, as Ebert notes above, an Idiot Plot cannot not exist unless someone (often, several people) unrealistically behave like idiots. Weird thing is, a Stupid Plot isn't always a bad story—or maybe I mean that it's not always an unenjoyable story. But you can never really mistake a Stupid Plot for anything else.
Like the fella once said, ain't that a chip in the head?
For reasons that surpasseth all understanding, mind control and split personalities are all the rage this season. Not your generic "let's control the main character's mind from a distance with mysterious rays device" like a good mad scientist, oh no no no. No, we're talkin' implants—microchips and other fun stuff—and good old-fashioned really nasty conditioning. And not just in the funny books, neither; it's even spread to television. And a lot of these stories tread the line between interesting execution of an interesting concept and "No, really, perhaps you should take this concept back to the drawing board and think about it for a little while longer. Or find better writers. Something. Really."
I should preface this by noting that most of the stories discussed below are in early stages yet. It's possible that they might rally from the occasionally mind-numbing stupidity of their premises and plots and make their stories work. Maybe. Understand also that I'm handwaving the actual tech or mechanics per se; after all, the FDA has already approved human microchip implantation, if not in the brain, so that particular technology is probably not all that far away (though the ethical arguments will take years to work through to anyone's satisfaction). I'll cover one quite genuine Idiot Plot, one that has so far avoided those particular issues, and one where the jury is still out—despite quite a lot of Stupid wandering around.
In My Own Worst Enemy, a new and just-cancelled television series starting Christian Slater and Alfre Woodard (link to full episode online, Flash 9 required), the Stupid is right there, plain for everyone to see. Slater plays Edward, a very good, very deadly secret agent working for Janus, a black ops section of the US intelligence apparatus. Slater also plays Henry, a nice middle-class efficiency analyst and expert with a wife, two children, a house in the 'burbs, your average life. Edward and Henry timeshare the same body thanks to a high-tech chip in the head, being put to sleep or wakened by the computer geek in charge of the chip as needed. Only now the chip is malfunctioning, "randomly" wakening the inactive personality at terribly inopportune times. And, of course, by "randomly," I mean that Henry typically wakes up in the middle of one of Edward's black ops, and Edward typically wakes up in bed with Henry's wife, with whom he then has terribly athletic and inventive sex that Henry knows nothing about until the next day. Henry also discovers, much to his dismay, that he is the invented/created/cover personality, that Edward volunteered for this top secret experiment that created him. Woodard's Mavis is the head of Janus, with a lot invested in making this program work and keeping it running, and Tom/Raymond is another enchipped Janus agent, who frequently functions as Edward's control.
The Stupid, in this case, is in both the premise and the execution. Mind, I'm fine with the whole "high tech chip in the head" thing. I can accept that they would use it to download knowledge and reboot either personality as needed. (Actually, that's kind of cool.) It's also understandable that Henry would be appalled at what Edward does when he controls their body—lots of murder, maiming, torture, sleeping with spy womens who are not his wife, etc. What I can't accept is how the story works once everyone knows that the chip is malfunctioning and that Henry knows what's going on, because it requires everyone to be actively Stupid at an impressively idiotic level.
At first, it works just fine. Once Mavis realizes that Henry knows too much, she erases and re-downloads him onto the chip, over then-Henry's vociferous objections. Nonetheless, it quickly becomes apparent that the chip itself is having problems, continuing to randomly awaken Henry in the middle of operations. Mavis, for some reason, has a lot invested in not letting anyone know that Edward's chip is malfunctioning—this despite the fact that Edward was the first chipped agent, despite the fact that it's been in situ for nearly 20 years and could be expected to need replacement or upgrading at regular intervals. Somehow, the Janus program has clicked along all this time without ever having to deal with a malfunctioning chip, ever having to replace one, or developing real protocols for doing so, and that makes no sense whatsoever. Given that this started out as an experimental program, those protocols would have been put in place at the very beginning, if only because they couldn't know if or how well it would work in practice; Janus appears to be unusually stupid, even for a government organization, and especially for one that's a paranoid spy agency.
It becomes obvious very quickly that Henry flailing around, trying both to extract himself from this terrible situation and make himself into a real boy, risks exposing the program. It beggars belief to think that Janus wouldn't have a program in place for simply replacing the chip—fake some sort of accident that requires Henry/Edward to have brain surgery and replace the chip with something better. After all, it's been nearly 20 years; surely microminiaturization and chip technology have advanced to the point where they could use a more sophisticated chip in him. What sort of nimrod would assume that the chip will continue functioning well after so long in place? High-tech equipment just doesn't do that. There's also the issue that we're told early on that Edward was put to sleep for a very long time, years, and we're never really given a good reason for him being awakened. That being the case, what nimrod assumes that a piece of high technology equipment will be functioning normally after being unused for so long? And it further beggars belief that, if they somehow can't replace the chip, they wouldn't either just remove it—leaving them with only Edward, who is a very effective agent, and who can fake being Henry much better than Henry can fake being Edward—or just kill Edward/Henry.
Weird thing is, the Idiot plot in My Own Worst Enemy actually kind of works, up to a point. The pilot is the most weirdly entertaining thing I've seen in a while. As I said to a friend, "This isn't just stupid, it's STOOOOPID, but it's also kind of fun." Once the plot starts needing Henry's stupidity and, much less forgivably, Mavis's stupidity, to drive the narrative engine, however, it stops being nearly as entertaining.
After the pilot, Henry gets amazingly stupid indeed. Despite the fact that Henry himself has to kill two people very early on to protect his family, despite the fact that Mavis has told him point blank that they'll kill anyone he tells or anyone who finds out, he's told people, and they've died. It's understandable, for example, that he would want to find out what's going on with his body, to find out from a neutral and independent source that, yes, there is a chip in his head. Unfortunately, he gets an old school friend of his killed in finding out the information, precisely because he's not awake all the time and can't control all the information that Edward has access to; Edward finds out about the scan from Henry's wife's confusion about the insurance bill, and that's it for the good doctor. Edward may or may not have killed the doctor himself—we don't know and neither does Henry—and he and Henry both have a vested interest in not letting Mavis know about some of the problems, because if they get too bad, she'll just kill off the body and be rid of both of them. Henry also never wonders why a company of "efficiency analysts" would bother having a staff psychologist, and never remembers that he's been explicitly told that everyone that works in the AJ Sun company/building is a part of Janus, either a chipped agent or other staff, and he trusts the staff psychologists with some of his fears and secrets. She is, of course, a Janus agent, so this doesn't always go very well; then again, she's a Janus agent who's head-over-heels for Edward, so it goes much better than it should.
Mavis's plot-driven stupidity is by far the worst. Someone as clearly cutthroat and ruthless as Mavis is supposed to be simply would not let things get to this point. Henry's emergence at awkward times has endangered a few missions already (three episodes, more than three missions with Henry in the wrong place at the wrong time), has endangered the agent who now has to go along with him to make sure that missions can be completed if Henry pops out at just the wrong moment as he is wont to do, and has even threatened exposure of his problem to the very people Mavis is trying to hide it from. At the least, she'd have had the chip removed long since, if not Edward/Henry's actual head; he's endangering her.
Cyblade, a very new comic by Joshua Fialkov and Rick Mays, gets around the potential for an idiot plot involving the enchipped, at least for now. Dominique, a high school student, has been chipped—hers is called a "brain box"—trained and conditioned by the evil criminal organization to be a super secret agent and assassin. Her brain box malfunctions, giving her back control of her own mind and memories, for a time.
And that scene right there shows why Cyblade makes more sense, at least at the start, than My Own Worst Enemy, which follows a very similar story arc. It helps that Cyblade is the construct, rather than Dominique, certainly, and that according to the last page of the first issue, the personalities merge rather than fighting for control of the body. And an evil criminal organization would have as much, if not more, reason to keep its agents from being able to knowingly testify against them. But the evil criminal organization is so far responding far more sensibly than Janus. Like My Own Worst Enemy, circumstances force the organization to use Cyblade/Dominique when they know full well that her brain box is malfunctioning, although they don't yet know the extent of the malfunction. But the panels above make a couple things very clear: (1) trusting her conditioning to hold when the brain box went seems to have been a horribly misguided decision, but one they were at least somewhat prepared for, and (2) they tolerated that situation for a grand total of three days before they decided to reimplant Dominique. (I'm assuming for the sake of argument that either reimplantation doesn't work, doesn't happen, or something goes wrong again, because this is the first issue of a new continuing series, and having a sort of mindless assassin as the main character doesn't quite work.)
I have to admit, I've gone back and forth a lot with Gemini, by Jay Faerber and Jon Sommariva. Parts of the concept are kind of cool, and the storytelling is good enough that I really want this to work, but parts make me just scratch my head in bafflement. A secret bunker o' geeks runs a bunch of superheroes through a sort of remote control. Why, you might ask, would they do that? And well you might ask! As far as we can tell at this point, the answer is "Because they can." While the organization clearly uses some types of mind control, it's not obvious yet how their mind control works, apart from quite a lot of heavy duty conditioning and some sort of brainwashing, probably technological in nature. The organization, called the Constellation, uses contact lenses and the superhero costume to monitor its heroes. Gemini, also known as Dan Johnson in his civilian life—which Gemini doesn't know about—is one of those heroes.