The Walking Dead and The Uncanny Valley

I learned a new (wonderful) word the other day. The definition is pretty straight-forward.

verisimilitude: (n) Having the quality of realism.

Basically, it just means that when you see something, it is internally consistent enough to SEEM real. Think of it this way ... you have a long wall and two people are standing on either end, facing at 45 degrees to the center of the wall, not at each other. And they're sitting there, not throwing directly at each other, but somehow they keep catching it. Now you're standing on the other side of the wall, this looks crazy. How is the ball going back and forth? Allow me to draw it out (crudely):

Now there could be any number of reasons that this works. Maybe there's another wall on the other side that they're bouncing it off of. Or maybe the ball is actually on as string and it's swinging it around. Or maybe the ball has some kind of boomerang effect built in. Or maybe there's a third person in the middle of the wall that they're actually throwing it to. Who knows - but because none of these violate the laws of physics, you can construct a theory in your head that makes everything work together.

In fact, you don't even need a theory that holds to the laws of physics. Let's say this was in a movie, and, in the movie universe, telekenisis was fully part of their world, and people could bend the ball to go where the wanted it to in their minds. No problem - that's how they're playing, and you move on. 

Where things start to fall apart is my topic for today - I call it the uncanny valley of science fiction.

I love Sci-Fi, and especially when the changes in the world that we're asked to believe force us to reevaluate what we're faced with in ours. And, if given the choice, I'll probably watch a Sci-Fi property versus almost any other. However, Sci-Fi done wrong pisses me off to no end - mostly because I feel completely detached from the product and that I've completely wasted my time. A bad Sci-Fi picture is far worse than a bad picture of almost any other genre. I think this is because when it's bad, it has fallen into the uncanny valley.

The two ends of the spectrum of Sci-Fi are the following:

  • Total fantasy
  • Almost real

In the total fantasy side of the world, you look at something like Lord of the Rings. Beautiful world, magic everywhere, creatures being created from mud, and so on. You may look at it with a little bit of science - did that tower topple the right way, did the arrow arc through the air correctly - but by and large everything is on hold because there's no framework in which to judge its realism. Could Gandalf have destroyed the bridge with his staff? Who knows. A wizard did it. But it's enough to tie everything together.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Star Trek. Very tangible world, mostly extensions of inventions we've already created, but standard human biology and physics apply. In this case, ALL science must apply and be applicable, or you have to have a VERY plausible cause for why. If Geordi wants to move a moon out of its orbit, you better explain it down to the nano-newton exactly how he's going to do it. And, in large part, they do an excellent job in doing so, which is why the serieses are so beloved.

But now we come to the uncanny valley, and current sand under my fingernail, The Walking Dead. Agh. The biggest problem here is that while there's not much magic (other than dead coming to life and taking over the earth), there's SO MANY unanswered questions. And everyone of them force me to sit there thinking through those questions rather than enjoying the show. Here's a small list:

  • How did all of the Southeastern US get taken over by people who cannot travel by car? The US is REALLY BIG, and not easy to get around in. Even if they ran NON-STOP, as fast as a marathon runner (3 hours per 26 miles), it'd take at least 24 hours to cross Georgia. Zero chance that goes beyond one state.
  • Why are zombies out in the middle of a freeway, wandering around, walking through stopped cars?
  • Why are zombies out in the middle of a forest, wandering around, threatening people?
  • Why are a bunch of zombies sitting around a school where no living thing has been there for months?
  • It's impossible to get into a tank using just a pistol, let alone your hands. How would a brain-dead zombie do it?
  • Did I mention how big the wilderness is? You could camp out anywhere and likely have zero chance of running into someone else for months - in today's world! Let alone a world where everyone is running for their lives.
  • If ANY significant portion of the population died (let's say 25%), we would have so much food, fuel and spare goods, we would not even know what to do with ourselves.

I could go on. But the net is that shows like this lack verisimilitude. They lack the internal structure that is consistent enough to explain how that ball is defying the laws of physics, and then instead of enjoying the character drama, you just sit there being slightly put off the entire show. I want to like SciFi shows like this - I really do. But pick a body and go with it - the uncanny valley is no place to write your show.

    1 response
    Any time you can invoke Mr. Burns saying, "Don't spoil this moment with your pricetaggery [replace with pricetaggery with whataver pokes holes in the versimilitude]", you know that a show is in trouble.

    But troubleshoot this with me: I thought that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was God-awful. At one point, I said that the ending [SPOILER ALERT] was particularly ridiculous because Cate Blanchett's head exploded. But of course, that was exactly what happened in [SPOILER ALERT] Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why was I willing to overlook THE EXACT SAME RESULT in one movie but not another?

    I think it must be that, in many situations, the versimilitude problem that drops you into the valley is about percentage. Because there was so much good in Raiders that, at the end, I was willing to accept that ghosts flying out of a gold box that had a flimsy lid on it was feasible enough that it didn't ruin the picture. However, if Indy had somehow become the Incredible Hulk or something or other and ate the Nazis, it would have been too much for my feeble brain to forgive.

    So I'd be interested to know if you feel that the substance of the good in the Walking Dead does not outweigh the small (relatively) versimilitude issues that you have detailed.