countdowns

to me, countdowns are a very silly way to create a false sense of tension in telly.

there’s only two situations that i can think of in which employing a countdown for some sort of Event is practical: the first is when the Event needs some lead time for get away because the triggering of the event has to happen within the proximity of the Event’s effect. an antagonist needs to set off the timer for an explosion and then get away, or some place needs to set off the self-destruct protocol or lock-down protocol to contain a threat. the second is when the timing of an Event itself is critical for coordination of other events. Multiple explosions need to happen at once, or an explosion is used as the trigger for another action to start.

There are times when media will be thoughtful enough to build into a plot one of the two above scenarios, but more often than not shows will put bombs or other doomsday devices with fancy countdowns on them merely to try to create a sense of urgency and tension to the situation that fails to create actual urgency and tension because of the predictability of the outcome.

A recent frustrating example of this is in one of the recent episodes of Doctor Who, Victory of the Daleks. In a sea of otherwise outstanding episodes thus far under new management, Victory, despite a decent plot conception and decent character interactions, suffered from poor execution of solving the mystery and resolving the conflict. In what was supposed to be the Turning Point of the episode, the Doctor is faced with the classic pursue-or-save-the-hostage choice of “eliminate the Daleks once and for all” or “let the Daleks get away because otherwise they’ll destroy the world with a bomb.” Which is fine even though it’s pretty standard plot fare because it’s a pretty reasonable scenario, but the problem in this instance was that when the Doctor made the predictable hero choice, the Daleks said, “we’re going to destroy your world anyway!” and…. started a very long countdown to the bomb.

Given the fact that the Daleks were already in the throes of getting away from the planet, that sequence of events was ludicrous. First off, it invalidated the Doctor’s choice moments before because they were going to set off the bomb regardless of the choice that the Doctor made. But worse, it invalidated the daleks’ threat because if the Doctor would have chosen to destroy the ship and the daleks managed to start the countdown before the Doctor managed to finish them off, he still would have been able to stop the bomb because the countdown was minutes long. Resultingly, it just brought about lots of “why?” questions. if the doctor was saavy enough to anticipate that the daleks were going to detonate the bomb in the first place, why didn’t he let the attacking ship destroy the daleks at the same time? why did the daleks create a bomb that had such a long countdown and was so flawed that it could be stopped just by trying to convince the bomb that he was a human being? How did the new Daleks even know that a bomb existed in the *first* place? They weren’t the ones that planted it; they had just been born.

Another great example of a frustrating countdown situation was in the first season Leverage episode The 12-Step Job. In that episode, two of the protagonists, Elliot and Hardison, are searching a car. Hardison opens up the driver door and sits down in the driver’s seat right as Elliot determines that the seat has been tampered with. They discover that Hardison sitting down in the driver’s seat arms a weight bomb that will go off if he decides to get up. Fair enough. But while he’s trying to come up with ideas on how to get out of the car whilst still maintaining weight on the driver’s seat, Elliot inspects the bottom of the car and sees that Hardison arming the bomb also sets off a countdown timer.

Given the fact that the antagonists of the situation were nowhere to be found at the scene, the only reason that the bomb was set up in such a stupid way was to give the protagonists a way to get out of it. If you want to be sure that the bomb goes off, why not just rig it so that it will detonate when the protagonist first sits down? Why give them the opportunity to be able to sit in the car and then react to a visible countdown? Not only that, but immediately after Hardison and Elliot successfully disarm the bomb and escape the car, the protagonists suddenly come out of nowhere and point guns at them. Why point a gun at them at a point when they’re now able to defend themselves? Why not get to the scene earlier when they were helpless because they were trying to deal with the bomb?

I seem to remember that one of the seasons of 24 had a similarly ridiculous countdown issue, some bomb that was hidden at an airport or something. I don’t quite remember as that was many years ago and pretty unmemorable (it’s a pretty unmemorable show as far as i’m concerned). I’m sure that if i thought about it i could come up with many other modern examples, and i find it truly bizarre. These days there are much more effective ways to create crisis tension, even some that involve a specific and known timeline. Countdown tension situations to me belong in the same category of the damsel-tied-up-on-the-train-tracks scenario. It has its history and you appreciate its use in historic television and movies, but even in the face of our current terrorist-panic environment, the premise of a doomsday device with a countdown seems old and tired, and will always seem old and tired to me until the moment when the main protagonist actually fails to stop the bomb and gets killed.

Or maybe i’m just disgruntled and should just relax about the situation.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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