Sunday, December 12, 2021

Series Characters: On Again Next Week

 Zoë Sharp


More years ago than I care to recall, I used to watch a regular TV drama called The Champions about three agents for a shadowy international law enforcement agency called Nemesis! In fairness, the exclamation mark may not have been part of the official title, but every time anyone said the name, it definitely seemed to have one attached. Nemesis! was based in Geneva. You knew this because of a badly back-projected shot of the cast against the giant Geneva fountain, the Jet d’Eau, in the opening credits.

The basic premise was that in the first episode, three agents of Nemesis (just take the ! as read, will you?) Richard Barrett, Sharron Macready, and Craig Stirling, played by William Gaunt, Alexandra Bastedo, and Stuart Damon, are in a plane crash in the Tibetan mountains. They are rescued by an ancient sect of monks who not only nurse them back to health but, for reasons of their own, also bestow upon the trio various superhuman talents. ESP, precognition, superior strength, speed, etc.


So, every week this fearless trio undertook a different vitally important assignment in a different corner of the globe. The assignment always saw them utilising their unique powers, whilst hiding their abilities from their enemies and their incredibly dim-witted boss, Tremayne. "So, Craig, exactly how many minutes did you manage to hold your breath under water …?"


(Stick with me on this – I think I know where I’m going with it, honest…)


Recently, somebody lent me the complete series on DVD and it was much funnier than I ever remember. Sadly, it was not intended to be a comedy, but Tremayne’s wig appeared to be constructed from greyish Astroturf and could not have looked any more artificial if it had come equipped with a chin strap – maybe that was the purpose of the also-obviously-fake beard he wore. And despite the numerous exotic locations called for in the storylines, they only seemed to actually have three sets – submarine, country house, and underground lair. These did duty for just about anywhere, from small South American dictatorships, to the Australian Outback, to the Arctic, inter-cut with what was patently stock footage.


In my defence for taking weekly enjoyment in what might sound like the shonkiest bit of TV fluff going, I should point out that when the original series came out, I was about four. Not exactly of an age and level of sophistication where slightly dubious production values – not to mention a good deal of overacting – were what caught my eye.


I loved it.


I can still remember sitting utterly glued to the TV set in my grandmother’s living room, twisting myself into absolute knots of desperation as I watched the characters attempt to extricate themselves from whatever apparently hopeless predicament they’d got themselves into, in time for the closing credits. And my grandmother would always reassure me with the same words.


"But nothing terrible can possibly happen to them," she’d say, adding with the perfect logic of grandmothers everywhere, "It can’t – they’re on again next week."


And, of course, although it never seemed to reassure me much at the time, she was quite right. They always beat the bad guys and lived to fight another day.


Just like a series character.


(See, I told you I knew where this was going.)


When you pick up an ongoing series, you do so in the knowledge that the characters you’re going to read about – those you’ve come to care about – will survive past the final page. Conan Doyle did his best to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but was forced by the resultant public outcry to come up with a way of him surviving his encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and go on to further adventures. Of course, Lee Child famously promised that he was going to kill off Jack Reacher in the final instalment of his series, but now that his brother Andrew has taken over, maybe the plan has changed…? Until we reach that book – and we hope it’s not for years yet, if at all – we know Reacher is still going to be around to walk off into the sunset.


In a standalone, on the other hand, you can reach the final page to find it’s not so much a case of Last Man Standing, as no man left standing at all. And anybody who’s read any of Duane Swierczynski‘s wonderful visceral novels will testify to that one.


A former friend who was a big reader of mystery/thriller/adventure novels, used to occasionally visit to browse through the book collection and borrow a few books, and he wouldn’t read series. He claimed this is because he liked a totally self-contained story with no loose ends, rather than because he preferred the uncertainty of not knowing if the main protagonist and the ongoing surrounding cast would make it to the end of the story.


But do they always?


I’ve talked before here about how much can you progress and grow and change your series protagonist from one book to the next, but I want to pose a question one step further. Can you have sudden, cataclysmic change in an ongoing series and get away with it?


This week’s Word of the Week is borborygmus, which is the rumbling sounds made by the stomach, caused by the movement of food, gases, and digestive juices as they migrate from the stomach into the upper part of the small intestine. The average body makes two gallons of digestive juices a day.


  1. William Kent Krueger did that with a major ongoing series character although not the protagonist. he got away with it. He admitted that it wasn't his intention but the alternative seemed contrived. We've never had the guts to do something like that...

  2. As I sat with my granddaughter and family at breakfast today, surrounded by unexpected borborygmus, you allowed me to impress everyone with putting a proper name to the serenade. Thank you. As for killing off a series central protagonist, let's just say I'm not brave enough to do that...yet...though I've done that with some key villains...for now. ")