In My View: My war against derivative

That is it. I’ve had it.

I’m declaring war against the word, “derivative.”

At first, I thought it would fade away. That it would be one of those words that popped into the general lexicon and then fizzled away. I had hoped that smarter minds than mine would prevail. I had secretly prayed that someone, somewhere would raise a red flag and say, “Wait a second here…”

But this word is insidious and I’ve heard it used more and more often like some sort of mantra to describe why someone didn’t like a show. I don’t know what murky depths this word crept out of, but it is time to beat it back.

The problem with it is that it is by and large a MEANINGLESS word when it’s applied to fiction. Every story on a basic structural level is the same. There’s a problem, rising action, climax, resolution and denouement. But maybe that’s too general; perhaps I should say almost every mecha show is the same. There’s a teenager who encounters a robot who must use said robot to defend the world against the forces of evil. I can trace a direct link from Amaro Rei to Shinji Ikari to Lelouch Lamprouge much like I trace a direct link from Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet.

But no one ever calls Shakespeare a hack, now do they?

The thing is that people use this word as some sort of code sign meaning, “Well it’s too much like everything else.” But even that is a lame excuse. Honestly, I have to quote iknight from a comment (I think the first he ever left on my blog) on a post I wrote comparing Evangelion to RahXephon.

I’m not convinced that the clone issue is really the key one: RahXephon could be a clone of Eva and still be good, and it could be perfectly different and be awful

And that’s the fundamental point these people seem to be missing. A show shouldn’t be judged on how much like other shows it is, but on the strength of its characters, plot, themes and things that actually matter. A show can be fundamentally similar to another show and still have things that make it interesting and worth seeing.

But what makes this plague so worrisome is that it sets up an expectation in people’s minds that by some magic the show they’re going to watch will be something completely new, untainted by the tropes and conventions of whatever genre it might fall into. Those great story ideas come out of some magical spring that is isolated from the rest of the world. And creators would remain uninfluenced by the works that preceded them.

Because of course, they don’t need to know how people act, or how a story is structured, or how to create tension. I mean why would they need to know that stuff.

They’re creating something new.

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8 Comments

  1. Think I’m going to have to disagree again. When people I know use “derivative” I take it specifically as “lacks distinguishing merits to seperate it from its predecesor X.” Tengen Toppa is of course derivative of other mecha shows, but it has its own flair and style that make it different. I don’t think people use derivative to mean “in the same genre as.” It’s more like “rip-off.”

    And for shows that -do- feel like clones of other shows (like Rah Xephon & Evangelion, though I didn’t finish either so that might not help) what’s wrong with not wanting to watch the same thing twice? If something is derivative without -sufficient- distinguishing merits I’m going to be watching the whole thing with a feeling of bored deja vu. There’s nothing wrong with failing to recommend this.

  2. @Shiri – I still don’t think that even calling one thing a rip-off of another is a great argument. Because I can point to various shows that have similar plots, similar characters and similar worlds that are both good shows. What I think people are reacting to is that X show isn’t as good as Y show. The characters don’t have the same depth. Or the problems aren’t as complex. Or the themes aren’t as good.

    The thing is that almost every show in a particular genre is on a basic level the same. Yes, the details might be different. But really, they’re the same on a plot level, sometimes on a theme level, occasionally on a character level. But if even if I compare ef-tale of memories to Air or Macross: Frontier to Mobile Suit Gundam they’re all good shows on their own merits.

  3. A show shouldn’t be judged on how much like other shows it is, but on the strength of its characters, plot, themes and things that actually matter.

    Applying this standard is somewhat unfair to the original works. If I ripped off half of Evangelion, added some fireworks, maybe a dinosaur or two, and smoothed over some of the other flaws/omissions, should my “new” show get as much (or more) credit as the original?

    Then again, my example describes a show that’s legitimately derivative. I do agree with you about the term “derivative” being overused/misused when describing anything that remotely resembles a past work. South Park did a sweet episode about this in which every time a new plot line was proposed, somebody would quip, “The Simpsons did it.”

    I’m about to start Evangelion, and I’m certain that newer mecha anime has spoiled me enough that I won’t be as impressed as the fans who watched Eva when it first came out.

  4. @Baka-raptor – I think it depends on how “original” you think the original show is. I mean if you break it down Eva has all the same character achetypes from most other robot shows. It just makes the main character an anti-hero and throws in a conspiracy (which isn’t that novel). But it does have some great scenes and fairly well-developed characters and an interesting premise.

    One of the reasons why I argue to use story-telling techniques rather than simply similiarity is because it just doesn’t make a lot sense. I mean Eva definitely takes more risks than a show like RahXephon, but I think it fails a lot more.

    And to be fair, I’m not even sure what people mean by it. And how they judge something as derivative while something else that might have just as many similarities as new and exciting.

    I actually experienced a similar thing when I read Lord of the Rings. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with it as I was with it’s more modern counterparts. And honestly, I’m still not. But… I think there’s a difference between respecting a show because of what it did for its time and respecting a show because it is well-constructed, or it suceeded at it’s ambitions.

    But honestly, I watched Eva after watching RahXephon and quite a few other shows of it’s type. I think there are quite a few scenes and characters that stand the test of time.

  5. I’d say there’s a space to use ‘derivative’ if you’re talking about the achievement of the show, and if you want to ask whether the show has something about it which distinguishes it (in that, for example, there weren’t many predecessors for Armoured Trooper VOTOMS, except the director’s own Dougram). These are legitimate questions, but ultimately they’re not the primary ones, which should be about the entertainment value of the show, the solidity of its plot and characters, the coherency of its themes.

    So I agree with you. But I would – you quoted me, after all.

  6. @The Animanachronism – I think you hit on something there, that I will cover in another post. But in short, I think it’s necessary to seperate the idea of derivative from the idea of unambitious. Because I think a show can be unambitious and still be good.

  7. Here’s a random tidbit:

    The term derivative is a term of art in a couple fields of science and art that I deal with, so I avoid using the term generally unless I want to claims some aspect(s) of the meaning as I mean it in, say, calculus, law or chemical engineering.

    Since I do talk about copyright on my blog, however, derivative is indeed a derisive word to use there. It’s almost an exaggeration when one use the term to describe things like Rahxephon.

  8. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Receptor.


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