I’ve been rewatching some old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes on BBC America lately, remembering how much I liked the show’s innovative approach to familiar sci-fi scenarios. But I’m also reminded of something that always drove me nuts: Deanna Troi’s intermittent empathic sensory perception which allowed her to read people’s unspoken feelings. I say intermittent because her ability was often crucial to the episode’s story, but at other times—when it would have been really useful—it went on the blink: the emotions of the crew were running too high, or there was atmospheric turbulence of some kind, or the target being scanned was the wrong species… In each case, she was suddenly unable to get a clear fix on how someone was feeling.
Of course, the truth is that in most of those episodes Deanna’s abilities had to be switched off or else the episode would fall apart. Without all those convenient blockages, intentions would be stripped bare, duplicity revealed and villains unmasked. We would know by the end of the teaser all the stuff we weren’t supposed to know till the last few minutes of the show. Suspense, mystery and dramatic conflict would all go out the window because Deanna was just a bit too useful.
I call this an example of the TMP: a plot device which has Too Much Power.
Somewhere in those early script meetings it sounded really cool to have an empath on board, someone to balance the (supposedly) emotionless logic of Data by being not just in touch with her own feelings but clued in to everyone else’s as well. But once the series was well underway the script writers constantly had to turn her emotional radar off, and the result was not just annoying: it exposed the plot as a machine which was all too easy to derail.
There are lots of these in fantasy and sci-fi: wondrous artifacts which have mystical properties, innocent looking weapons which have the effect of a nuclear strike, characters whose magical abilities allow them to summon tornadoes or turn lions into hatboxes. The TMP device often looks cool, a great way to get out of a plot difficulty or raise some interesting character issues, but at some point it turns on you and you have to start trying to explain why—sometimes—it doesn’t work at all: can’t be allowed to work, if all your other work on plot, character etc. is going to hold together. The TMP is a Pandora’s Box or—if you prefer—a ring of power, an idea you turn to give your story something a bit special but which then tunnels into it and eats it from the inside (not so much fun now, is it, precious?).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late because I have a WIP which flirts with time travel, a TMP if ever there was one. Think of the dreaded Time Turner in the (otherwise excellent) 3rd Harry Potter novel: an artifact of extraordinary power which can unleash all manner of potentially fatal chaos which has been entrusted to a school girl so she can take extra classes? Really? OK. I can just about accept that for the puposes of the story. But then it’s NOT used in future books as the body count mounts because that would somehow destabilize the universe or something? I don’t want to get too literal minded about this, but no. Sorry. Not buying it. If you commit to the TMP, you have to be prepared to use it wherever and whenever it seems reasonable to do so. Expect no mercy from your readers if you use it only when it suits you to do so.
There are two ways of handling the TMP device to your advantage. One is to do the Next Gen thing and hedge the device around with limits and boundaries, but if you do this those limits need to be consistent and self-evident. Deanna’s occasional empathic abilities drove me mad because turning them off was so obviously a ruse: there was no clear pattern as to when they worked and when they didn’t (so far as I could see), so the moment was exposed for what it was: a plot point. If you give a character a powerful ability or artifact, think about limiting it in definitive ways: it won’t work under water or, for that matter, it ONLY works under water. Whatever. Just set the rule and stick to it.
The other way of foiling the TMP device before it eats your story head first is simply not to use one. Fantasy and sci-fi writers seem to find it almost impossible to resist the lure of the TMP, bent as we are on showing how the world in our stories is not the one outside our windows, but I can think of no easier way to paint yourself into the kind of corner you can never get out of. So I say this. Beware the TMP and all its works and all its empty promises. It is one of those green-eyed monsters which mocks the meat it feeds on, and the meat—don’t forget—is what was going to be your book.