Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Preserving the Tension in Action-Comedy

Action comedy - in which conflicts play out in an inherently absurd or amusing world - is a genre which must balance its threat to the characters with its general tone. This is not to say a moment of seriousness within an amusing story cannot work, but that finding a balance of tone and keeping this consistent is crucial to a cohesive and credible story. A series like The Irresponsible Captain Tylor or Dominion Tank Police lays out its slapstick nature plainly from the start; even if the setting is a high-stakes one there is little actual risk to anyone because the tone is defined by physical, farcical humour. Neither shies away from reminding the viewer that weapons hurt but at the same time their characters mess around and in the process avoid fights with consequences - or properly taking responsibility for them. A good example is the first battle Tylor fights in the former series; a series of slapstick mishaps result in a bomb exploding on a warship's bridge, causing a weapon malfunction which destroys a number of other ships in formation. It is a military victory - many enemy personnel are assumed to have died as the ships explode - yet it is portrayed as the punchline to a visual joke telegraphed much earlier in the episode.

This example from Captain Tylor presents one approach to action comedy; the stakes are real and people die but it is presented no differently to the consequence-less fun that precedes it. It suits that series, which parodies plainly the grand strategies and deceptions that are so memorable in the battles of Space Battleship Yamato or Legend of the Galactic Heroes - Tylor is just, through convoluted coincidences, doing exactly the same as a character like Okita in Yamato sets out to do intentionally. That tension is in fact the core joke behind Tylor. It is interesting to compare this approach with that of Majestic Prince, a series that I have written on previously. Majestic Prince had moments of silliness and ineptitude yet - a few key moments when levity suited excepted - its action was tense and shown to be consequential. Indeed, the move away from pervasive silliness as the series progressed let the characters develop beyond one-note archetypes while making the jokes that did remain stand out more. Characters died in Majestic Prince's battles, ship crews and pilots on both sides. The humour came from the pilots trying to get by and live normal lives between missions. Tylor uses enemy crews dying to friendly fire as a punchline.