Red Right Hand: I GOT TENSION ON ME
*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.

 

I GOT TENSION ON ME

Once again, this week, I'm taking my cues from another esteemed member of the scriptwriting blogosphere. From The Mystery Man:

What are some examples of great tension and suspense in cinema history? What made those examples great? What's to be learned by it? What are some bad examples? Because I would really like to know.

However, see that one word? The eleventh one. No. Not doing that. We talk TV around here and there are just as valuable lessons to be learned from the Cathode Arts, so I've chosen to write about...


As the Ron Moore-written episode begins, we are given introductory levels of tension. We know there's a clock ticking, we don't immediately know why. There's a nice cool level of tension. We know we're going to get answer, but we can't help being a little twitchy until we get and we're trying to piece together from the clues we're given. Like, why is everyone so tired. Bloodshot eyes, tenuous consciousness. Five o'clock shadow....like five o'clock the next day.

This, right here, is one of my favorite kinds of tension. The kind that doesn't just take you for a ride, but makes you a backseat driver. Something's happening, and the viewer is piecing it together as, if not just before, it happens. It involves, and it doesn't talk down. That's a tricky one, if there's any measure of predictability, you're shot. But it gets the mind racing and the viewer is taken to the edge of seat as they think they're on the leading edge of figuring something out while all that information, and all those moments build to the reveal of what's going on, right at the instant you've think you've figured it out. Or did you? Maybe you were just strapped in at the front of the ride.

Then we understand. This 33 minute tracking interval? When we begin the episode, this has happened 236 times. Every 33 minutes for 5 days. No one is sleeping for more than a half an hour at a shot. If that. No one gets a rest. As soon as you jump, you have to prep for the next one is the toasters will blow you out of the sky.

It's a tension we can imagine well. It's rooted in something we've likely experienced. You ever crammed for a test late a night, but you can't keep your eyes open. Ever faced a deadline that denied you sleep? Yeah, multiply that. And it doesn't need to be spoken, though we do get a line from Tigh, early on, one that we can remember once the first jump is made.

  • TIGH
  • We're getting slower.

It's obvious that each iteration is degraded from the previous. This problem needs to be solved and soon or it might be the next cycle that takes the fleet 34 minutes.

It's a great situation that is just fraught with plot tension, but creates tension among character who mightn't not be so inclined and magnifies the tension among others; sexual tension, professional tension, etc. A worn-down Starbuck is resistant to take stims (speed) from her Captain, Apollo. Yeah, both tensions are there. There both frazzled, so much so that when Apollo fails to get on her ass about following orders, she goes off on him for it.

The B-plot in here is the tension of dramatic irony. Roslin has received word from another ship in the fleet that a Dr. Amarak needs to speak with her urgently. Only we and Baltar know that it's most likely (not even certain) that it's because he can expose Baltar's instrumental role in the apocalypse that befell the 12 Colonies.

Both of these plots come together in the tense scene where Apollo and Starbuck are in their Vipers to investigate a returning ship that the fleet had lost in a previous jump. The Olympic Carrier is suspected as having been compromised in some way.
Baltar voices the suspicion.

  • BALTAR
  • If they were left behind, why didn't the Cylons destroy them?

Maybe they are the key to the Cylon's tracking abilities. Is there an agent aboard? They might be rigged with radiological bombs. Also, that's the ship that Dr. Amarak is aboard.

Apollo and Starbuck are finally given the order. Destroy it. Another involving tension here. The tough decision. But it's the kind that isn't just in the story, it challenges you too. What would you do? Could you pull the trigger on a passenger ship that may or may not be full of 1300 innocent people because it's suspected being a threat.

What do I take from these examples. There is no tension without engagement. Not just because the plot is interesting, but because it fires the mind. You can write tension, but it's not enough just to put a ticking clock on it or to jsut jump back and forth in a situation. That's cheap. When the story challenges you or lets you in on something, it involves you, and then, that's when tension can ply its...tense...trade upon you.
©2017 Michael Patrick Sullivan