Saturday, 27 March 2010

Fans Just Do It Better #1: Human Target

I adore Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. This may sound like an unnecessary fact to state at the beginning of an article on Fox's new action packed series The Human Target, but it's important. Pocket that tidbit, and we'll move forward.

I'll do the history lesson first. Familiarise you with the concept, get your brain juices moist and moving.

DC Comics' Human Target is a multimedia property that's hard to pin down, and that's exactly how it should be. For those of you not in the know, The Human Target started out as a back-up feature in Action Comics, playing second fiddle in the back pages to the Superman feature up at the front. Created by comic legends Len Wein (again, for those of you not knowledged-up, the guy that co-created Wolverine back when he was a one-note villain in the pages of Incredible Hulk) and Carmine Infantino (OK, let's just say that both these guys have comic book ink in their veins and that their contribution to the landscape of comic books is comparable to none), the title character, 'Christopher Chance', was the ultimate bodyguard-- he would assume the life of the client he was protecting and draw out the threat to their safety-- effectively become a human target (see what they did there?) that would take down the interloper before damage could be done. A master of disguise, close-quarters-combat, firearms and more, this was a character that would stand the test of time, and whose story is continuing even now in a new television series from Fox.

But that's where things get problematic.

Jonathan E. Steinberg, the show-runner for Fox's Human Target, has stripped away all the cool, intelligent, involving subtextual meat of the property, and has made it generic. Christopher Chance was the ultimate human chameleon, a man that would assume your life to protect you from the forces that would want you dead. Now then, Steinberg, and therefore Fox, have it wrong. Human Target is generic to the action genre, with it's witty one-liners, mysterious helpers, hardened mentor figure... it should be such much more than a distillation of every Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme film you watch on a Thursday night when there's nothing else to watch on television. Don't get me wrong, I really do like the show, but this isn't my Human Target. Mark Valley isn't my Christopher Chance. My Chance is a lithe, educated, scary-as-fuck borderline disassociate personality suffering, master of disguise. Mark Valley is all-American Captain America.

Generic is not a bad thing. Generic embodies all the tropes and covers an umbrella of archetypes that are consistent with whatever we're talking about. But Human Target has been twisted into something it shouldn't be. It's like Jonathan E. Steinberg had an idea for a show, and saw the name and applied it to the property, without caring for the established audience-- however small that was.


Let's role-play for a moment:

"Hey, Charlie, it's Fox, we've heard about your massive ego and your wanting to write for us. Have Human Target. Tell us what you want to do? Please?"

"Oh, sure, here's how it would go...

Human Target is the anti-Dollhouse. It's the alpha to it's omega (see what I did there?). Instead of one actor playing two or more characters as Eliza Dushku did when playing the Doll Echo, imagine two actors playing one character, as our Christopher Chance, a broken man who needs the constant appeasement of someone else's personality imposed over his own, uses high-tech make up and full-body prosthetics to replace his clients and become a Human Target-- fully capable of inserting himself into the highest echelons or the lowest depths of any situation and defuse a hostile event with his smooth talking or gun-slinging prowess!

But the problem is, every identity he immerses himself in leaves gaps in his own character, meaning his own personal tics are slowly leaving him as he adopts the stammers and processes of the people he has become. When does Christopher Chance end and the Human Target begin? Not even Chance himself knows.

Episodes alternate between darker and lighter fare. Sometimes Chance is a gritty bastard, dangerous to mess with and someone you don't want to meet in a dark alley. Something is wrong with this man. Other times, he's doing what he loves and he's doing it with a smile on his face. You can always tell if Chance is behind the face of your favourite stalked celebrity or a friend who's had it rough recently, because there's a hint of a smile just lingering between their lips.

There's a reason for this. Christopher Chance's arch-enemy is himself. Himself... but not. This sounds crazy, right?

Peter Milligan introduced the concept of Tom McFadden to the Human Target mythos. Chance had a mission go sour, his face was blown clean off, and because of this he had his assistant, Tom, impersonate him and draw out his assassin so that the threat to his life would be over. The Human Target became the latest client of the Human Target. At the end of it all, after Chance's face was rebuilt by the best surgeons money could buy-- and Chance has plenty of that to splash around-- McFadden has established himself to be a premier Human Target, perhaps even better than Chance ever was.

So what's the problem?

Chance is single. Childless. No single thing to tie him down. McFadden on the other hand is a family man, the life of a Human Target is not built for someone like him-- but he's good at it. Better than perhaps Chance himself. Christopher returns to the game, convinces Tom to return to his own life, but it doesn't stick...
Align Centre

...Now we have two Christopher Chances running around, and they're headed on a collision course, as the real one-- "which one is that this week?"-- realises that he's gaining enemies because he's done terrible deeds, or, to be more precise, someone with his face has committed those terrible acts. The second Christopher Chance-- actually Tom McFadden-- begins to fracture and break further and further away from reality, and wants to stop his doppelgänger.

So many subplots emerge now. I see Tom McFadden distracting Christopher Chance, drawing him out of his comfort zone, just as he did in the final arc of the Vertigo series-- framing Chance for murder, perhaps, and then simply slipping into his life and into his job whilst the real Chance is hounded...? McFadden infuriates gangsters in the guise of Chance, steals their money, sleeps with their women, their wives-- sure, it's a Chance thing to do, but it's a Chance thing to do for Chance!

Not only are we embedded in the lives of the Human Targets, but what about those who have been touched by them? Tom's family misses him. His wife blames Christopher-- and Christopher is the cause of this, in more ways than one. We have your story-of-the-week format, but on top of that the mystery grows. Who is Tom? Where is Tom? Who is watching Christopher? Everyone is against our hero, even himself, and by the first season finale, our two Chances will collide, leaving one man irrevocably broken, and the other... dead...?"

"Sounds a bit too smart for us, Charlie."

"Then give Jonathan E. Steinberg a call, you bastards!"

That's how it would roll. This series could be brilliant if it wasn't for the fact that it's not what it sets itself up to be. This isn't the Human Target. I wish it was. Then maybe I could tell more people about it. Instead, I think I'll just complain. When acquiring properties like this, the show-runner should use the whole landscape of the idea, rather than just focus in on a name, and spin that off into whatever suits their purpose. We're being robbed of what could have been one of the best television shows out there, just because they're refusing to think inside the box.

But I guess that's just as good in this day and age, right?

(Art by Tim Bradstreet and Cliff Chiang, all rights theirs and in no way mine. But God, aren't they great?)

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this almost as much as I loved listening to you explianing it that time, or reading the bits of the actual thing that you gave me to read.
    If we have learnt anything from television though (dollhouse/firefly etc)It's that the majority of viewers are not as clever as you, or the people that wrote the orginal human target. Not by a long shot. So to make something last in that nasty place called hollywood it has to be dumbed down, diluted and generally made easier to swallow. Crushing a few of your hopes and dreams on the way.
    My sympathies x