I needed to write “Palimpsest”. I had to get it out of my system. This story was all about me working through my issues with the ending of the show and I make no claims that it’s not. It worked. I am no longer bitter with Sam for any mistakes he may have made. My agony over the lack of narrative logic in the show has been supplanted by concentrating on all of the brilliant things in it. Now, if ever I feel the inclination to write a happy “oh look, they still get up to wacky hijinks” story (and I know myself so well, it’s bound to happen – bad narrative practice or not), I can write it with a clear conscience that I dealt with the problematic nature of the “happy ending” finale first.
I got the initial idea for “Palimpsest” months ago – the idea of the looping Groundhog Day approach mixed with the concept of palimpsest. At that stage, it was a romance – and in a way, a ‘fix-it’ fic for what I thought was to be the logical narrative conclusion of my favourite television show. I still think “Palimpsest” is a kind of romance. There’s a lot of emphasis on love – platonic and romantic. It has its own “happy ending”. But, obviously, it’s not the same romance I had originally conceived. I started writing the story during the period of time in which I was bitter at Sam for jumping off a building when his mother Ruth had spent months by his bedside. That’s a day after watching the finale, so, April 12 – but I had already had groundwork plans for four months that needed to be tweaked to fit the new concept.
This is a story that had the most in depth planning compared to anything I’ve written so far, so perhaps I really am a writer who needs to stick to structure. I wrote in a completely chronological fashion on this one, too. Which, when you think about it, is odd – this is surely the ideal piece to be hopping about in time.
An example of my notes;
Sam wakes up and knows that he can’t spend forever and a day waiting again. He’s seen Annie, knows her, knows everything, needs everything, wants to rub it all back until he gets everything.
The scene where Sam tries to connect with Gene to make him see. Sam is increasingly frustrated. He shows himself as clearly insane to Gene and the team and they lock him up. Measures aren’t taken and he hangs himself.
A scene where he wakes up in 1973 and sees everything overlapping. Multiple Sams and multiple Genes, multiple everything – and he can’t control any of it – he can’t bend it to his will – it’s a force larger than him and this is the way it’s supposed to be. He collapses in the office.
Ends - Sam’s in 1973 hospital. – Button reset to the case he tries to control. Gene & Annie etc. pissed at him – him realising he needs to resolve those issues. Twist is the reference to something from one of the alternatimes.
Lots of tiny references to the palimpsest approach.
Focus on an ‘issue’ in each installment. Classism, sexism, racism, etc.
As you’ll see if you’ve been crazy enough to read my notes on any of my other stories, this is much more detailed than I usually get. One drawback was that at some points it was a struggle to actually write the story – especially when I’d already gone for a sparse style. It was tempting to just put the notes there. The style is – well, I think it may be my default for serious fiction. It’s almost the same as the one in “Not By Mechanical Aid”, and similar to parts of “The Space Between”. It’s detached. Cold. Economical with words. It utilises sentence fragments and has limited but evocative description.
So, back to the impetus behind the story - I had conveniently forgotten that I had had Sam doing the exact same thing that he does in the finale in both “3 Connected Vignettes” and “As Humans, We Crave Disappointment”. The main difference being that ‘1973’ really is 1973 in those stories. I was judging Sam when I first started writing “Palimpsest”, rather harshly. Apparently, killing Sam multiple times is therapeutic. Or I just managed to put the finale into perspective. Over the next few days, I evolved from wanting to torture Sam, to wanting to redeem him, to wanting him to learn a lesson. A small lesson, perhaps, but a lesson all the same. Really, I wanted to follow narrative convention – which is something Matthew Graham did not do – and left me with this uneasy, tight feeling in the base of my stomach.
Um. I don’t exactly follow narrative convention either – and whether or not Sam really learns anything is debatable.
I love Sam. I do. I love him as the psychotic serial killer I made him out to be in “Qu’est-ce que c’est”. I love him when I have him being a sweetheart, such as in “Three for Tea”. And, you know, I love him in the show. Ultimately, I believe Sam deserves happiness. Maybe he doesn’t, but I still think he does. I can’t see happiness coming to him all that easily. At the end of the show, there’s the rainbow and Morgan’s apparently been forgotten, and I’ll admit that this irks me – my first response was to write “It’s Never Over”, to point out that Morgan’s still a challenge to be dealt with – a problem to overcome – because conflict is the heart of a story and I know the story goes on. There were a lot of things about ‘1973’ that annoyed Sam. I can’t see him finding them less annoying all that quickly. This is Sam “the picky pain”, remember? Very obviously, though, I truly think Sam belongs with Gene and Annie (and Chris! and Ray!) “Palimpsest” is me confirming that maybe Sam has put himself into a terrible situation, doomed to live the rest of his existence/after-life looping through one time, again and again, but he really loves Gene and Annie (and Chris! and… well,… Ray, I guess?)
The main difficulty with writing “Palimpsest” was deciding how much to show and how much to tell – how much to repeat, how much to gloss over. I firmly believe repetition is good. I also firmly believe it can be really annoying. (GOD IS IN THE DETAIL.) There were some things that had to be repeated in the story – that was the whole point. The text underneath the text. In the end, I chose to use a few phrases as my commonality (commonwhataly?), because I thought that this was something that would be obvious to the audience, but not necessarily obvious to Sam.
Another problem with “Palimpsest” was tone – it’s quite dark. Sam kills himself by multiple methods. And no, he can’t die, he doesn’t die, but I still find that a little confronting. Tonally, I wanted a bit of humour in “Palimpsest”. Just a dash. So, naturally, banter with Gene was the device to provide it. I do mean non-black-comedy humour, by the way. I confess that, as confronting as it is, part of me does find Sam killing himself over and over morbidly amusing. In that “rub my hands together and chuckle ‘how should he off himself now?’” kind of way. That was my ‘torture Sam!’ side kicking in. Except, of course, it’s Sam torturing himself.
No, it’s no coincidence that “Matthew” got put in gaol. But I’ve decided to continue loving him madly for giving me Sam and Gene in the first place. Plus, you know, we’ve both got flaws – and we appear to share a couple when it comes to the writing department. Matthew’s about 20 times more talented than I am. And I’ll admit, I’m still charmed by him, even if he is silly enough to talk about archetypes and say things like, “I was always slightly surprised that people thought there was a genuine mystery. To me, it was very obvious.” (Um, Matthew? You’re the writer. OF COURSE IT WAS OBVIOUS TO YOU.) In short, I still want ten thousand of Matthew Graham’s babies, even if I did write a piece of fiction making very obvious digs at him and his ending to Life on Mars.
I love the show. I love it for everything that is fantastic in it, even as I lament its faults. I don’t think I’m any less of a fan for looking at it with a critical eye and finding it wanting. Just as I don’t think anyone who adored the ending completely and unreservedly is deluding themselves. We all respond to different texts differently. Life on Mars got a lot right for me, and that’s all I can ask of it as a text, as a tv show, as something I allowed into my heart and my mind (as it grabbed me by the balls). I don’t regret getting so invested in it, not really, because I learnt so much about myself as a person, as a writer. I met so many awesome people through it. People that I like and respect, even as we disagree wildly on many different points. And I really have progressed as a writer. I never could have written “Palimpsest” a year ago – and it may not be perfect – but for now, I am pretty happy with it.