What does it take to make an old trope feel fresh? I’m prompted to ask this question by the return to British screens of Misfits, which is currently getting a repeat showing on Channel 4 on Saturday nights. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Misfits is about a group of young offenders who get caught in a storm that grants them (and others) super-powers. The thing is, it’s a much more interesting programme than it sounds; for all that it might seemingly be based on a hackneyed trope, there’s a freshness to it. One reason for this is that, I think, Misfits is determined to stay true to the context of its story.
To explain what I mean, I’ll first take a step back and look at the example of Heroes, another show about ‘ordinary’ people with super-powers (there’s a further similarity in that characters’ abilities were initially related to their personalities and/or circumstances in some way). Heroes was essentially a comic book on the telly, and it came to the television medium with various aspects (both good and bad) of superhero comics – cliffhangers, alternative timelines, and so on. This worked well enough in season one: the aesthetics were fresh, and I think there were some smart ideas – for example: giving such a visible power as flight to the character who’s the most public figure; giving regeneration to a teenage girl, who’s at probably the only time in her life when such a power would be unwelcome, because it’s a mark of difference. But Heroes went off the boil after that, for a variety of reasons, but including that it got wrapped up in its own continuity and moved too far away from what (I think) made it distinctive. It couldn’t be about ordinary people with remarkable abilities any more, not when some of its characters became so mighty-powered, and not when such extraordinary plots were being hatched.
Misfits strikes me as different. At least in its first season (the second has yet to air), every fantastical happening is filtered through the prism of inner-city teenagers with ASBOs; the idea of ‘super-powers’ is put into the service of a story about that kind of people in that kind of place – and this is what gives the programme its freshness. It’s the same thing that made the ending of Ashes to Ashes satisfy, even though the concept (a purgatory for coppers) wasn’t particularly surprising – it worked because the 1980s, police-procedural aesthetic remained intact throughout.
I’ve seen a similar effect at work in books. There are times I’ve found myself abandoning series of supernatural thriller/detections, because I felt they were relying too much on their built-up continuity to generate drama, instead of the root idea that made them interesting to me in the first place. But, just recently, I read The Radleys by Matt Haig, which is a vampire story with that sense of freshness. And, again, that freshness comes less from the concept – a middle-class family of abstaining vampires trying to get on with life – than the way Haig keeps the theme of ‘middle-class family travails’ at centre-stage, and deploys the vampire trope through that theme.
I’m coming to think that even the most venerable of tropes can be revitalised if integrated thoroughly enough with a particular setting or aesthetic. I wondered if any new takes were possible on the Arthurian mythos; and then, last year, I read Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which places aspects of that mythos in a story about feuding street gangs. It’s not fantastical as such, but it uses the significance of Arthurian names and icons for part of its effect, transforming them in the process – and that runs to the very heart of the novel.
This post has tried to put into words some thoughts that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I guess I can sum them up by saying: one way to make a trope fresh is to place it in a different context, and make it serve that context. The results can be interesting.