Note: This article is also available at Ideas Without End here
With regard to science fiction, I hold that setting should not overshadow plot, and exposition should be limited to the minimum necessary for the story. The 2005-06 series Eureka Seven, in its opening two episodes, effectively creates a sci-fi universe that is entirely believable, populated with characters who are similarly credible. While the setting is fantastical in nature, it is nevertheless convincingly portrayed and the viewer is able to easily accept it because those parts of it which are instantly relatable are realistic.
Realism in science fiction need not mean the technology featured is purely that which is currently existent, or even that which is within the bounds of reality; it is as much about the depiction of the impossible as whether or not something could exist. The central conceit of Eureka Seven is that a newly discovered kind of particle, the trapar, allows for anti-gravity technology to function in a fashion equivalent to surfing on ocean waves. Where the series excels is in making the viewer instantly accepting of the concept of trapars and thus able to understand how they relate to the narrative without needing lengthy exposition. This is done to an extent through context – there is no specific explanation in the first two episodes of how any of the technology functions, simply depictions of it working. The opening sequence features LFOs, military craft designed to use trapars for flight, and by showing the dogfighting style that the technology necessitates, the viewer is furnished with the context needed to understand the setting.
However, the focus is subsequently shown over the course of the first two episodes to be more on the characters than the machines or the technology; the conversation as the scene starts gives more of a clue about who the viewer is seeing rather than any details about the future they inhabit, setting the tone for the rest of the series. Eureka Seven is a science fiction series that is about its cast of characters, rather than setting. The juxtaposition of a dogfight in inexplicable machines with what follows, a scene of daily life for the ordinary people who inhabit the created world, highlights this believability. The viewer is introduced to the protagonist, Renton, and his pervasive narrative voice; the series will be about him first and foremost. A key part of a believable science fiction setting is that it appears to exist beyond those characters immediately featured in it, and Renton’s inner monologue and personality, shown both contextually through his bedroom and explicitly through his descriptions of daily life. By describing the world through the voice of a character who will be central to the plot, the viewer is given three pieces of information in one process – firstly, information about Renton, secondly, information about the world Renton inhabits and thirdly, what Renton feels about this; he is established as an unreliable, self-centred narrator who complains about his life, and most of all a realistically depicted teenage boy.
A scene where Renton is at school provides further exposition in a natural fashion; the response to his family apparently being celebrities is realistically handled, with fellow students remaining sceptical that their unremarkable classmate has a famous background. The pervading sense through Renton’s interactions with his classmates and grandfather is that his absent father and sister are not the simple heroes that the glimpses of the setting’s history present them as – but yet Renton’s obsession with living up to their example is what drives him to make all his early decisions. The viewer learns much about the context and motivations of the characters through seeing how they act in the present, and for this to be effective the characters must act believably. So from only a few scenes, Eureka Seven has imparted a lot of information about its setting; the level of technology, and the way in which these innovations have affected daily life. Renton’s obsession with lifting, an extreme sport using the trapars to surf on skateboard-like devices, is set against the LFOs fighting in the sky and it is this intersection of his obsession – both with the sport itself and the celebrity Holland – that by the end of the second episode has defined the course of the storyline. When the mysterious LFO called the Nirvash is introduced, and its pilot Eureka, the two become even more closely linked; dangerous lifting stunts like Holland’s trademark “Cutback Drop Turn” are now a means of fighting. Again, future plot developments are being foreshadowed in a way which focuses on creating a credible setting rather than simply providing exposition.
If, then, the setting and leading characters are so believably drawn up that the viewer is able to learn from naturalistic rather than self-consciously expository dialogue large amounts about the setting and their motivations, the character of Eureka becomes even more interesting. Her dialogue with Renton shows an innate familiarity with the setting from an entirely different perspective, one which is quite unrelatable for the viewer; the interplay between the two characters proceeds to change the viewer’s perception of what has gone before. She is presented as an otherworldly figure, detached from the materialistic and immature aims that have driven Renton’s petulance, and his response to this (perceiving it as vulnerability, reflected in his unwitting patronising of her) is used for comic effect. The viewer may initially share Renton’s perception of her but as her character develops, the distance that emerges between the two viewpoints moves from simple comedy to its own form of implicit exposition; we have seen Renton the petulant, materialistic teenager, wishing for control of his own life and rebelling against authority in his desire to emulate the counterculture hero Holland. This is then shattered at the first sight of a pretty girl; he is human in more ways than one.
To conclude, it is the focus first and foremost on interactions between characters, and the lessened emphasis on technology in the crucial opening sections of Eureka Seven that set it apart and establish the tone of the whole series. A character who has become complacent in his life and seeks to rebel is presented with a truly incomprehensible and untouchable object of desire, and the motivations which his voice has set forward (to fight what he perceives as boring town life and emulate his own idols while also living up to the expectations of his absent family) become changed; it is clear from the opening that the main focus of the series, despite the dogfighting LFOs and mysterious alien corals that emerge, is on Renton as a character and his relationship with his grandfather, Eureka and Holland. This emphasis on character, and the concise and natural exposition, makes it easier for the viewer to believe in the world the characters inhabit; even the simple act of juxtaposing Renton’s attempts at lifting with the visceral combat in the opening sequence (and the simultaneous juxtaposition of the photojournalist in his LFO turning war into a stylish spectator sport) contributes to the ease of suspension of disbelief; the trapars which are key to the plot are presented not as a convenient gimmick but as an integral part of a believable world.