The Ashbless Loop

In the novel The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, a literature professor, Brendan Doyle, is offered a trip back in time to see Samuel Coleridge Taylor give a lecture – only to become stranded in 1810.

However, this does put him in a position to begin investigating the mysterious poet William Ashbless. Little is known about Ashbless: all he left behind were his poems, which Doyle loves and has memorized, and a few recorded appearances in or after 1810.

Using his knowledge of history, Doyle begins turning up at places where Ashbless should be. But Ashbless doesn’t show. Indeed, the things that history records as happening to Ashbless start happening to Doyle instead. When he meets and falls for the woman Ashbless marries, Doyle realises – he is Ashbless. He will spend the rest of his life dutifully doing the things Ashbless is recorded as doing, “writing” the poems from memory and submitting them for publication, and in time, going knowingly to meet Ashbless’ violent death…

Which begs the question – who wrote the poems?

The poetry of William Ashbless is uncreated, existing forever in a closed loop in time, printed and re-printed that one day it can be memorized and taken back in time. An Ashbless loop.

And you know what? Some television episodes are like that. A closed loop in time.

I was watching one last night. A major character is accused of a crime (that, ironically, he did commit), and faces the death penalty unless he’s exonerated. At the end of the episode, sure enough, the evidence against him is proved to be fake, and his life is back to normal.

Okay, kudos for the irony that, despite the evidence being fabricated, he actually is guilty –  but apart from that? You could omit this episode from the series, and no one would notice.

Why? Because nothing is changed by what happens. Does the character change his ways? No. Do other people look at him differently, for good or ill, because of these events? No. Is the driving plot arc of the series affected? Not at all. Everything carries on exactly as before –

And the audience can tell. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment whenever they come to the end of an Ashbless loop episode, even if they’re not sure why. The episode feels a little empty, a little… pointless. And they’re slightly less likely to tune in next week.

Which is really just another way of saying – even in the most episodic, least serialized of shows, your story-of-the-week should change something. It should have consequences for someone. It should matter.