Some Thoughts on “Under the Dome” and my problem with post-apocalyptic fiction

I finally got around to watching the last two episodes of Under the Dome tonight. I had to record them, because for some reason the show is inevitably broadcast when I’m at the monthly translators’ meet-up.

Now I have to admit that I never read the Stephen King novel the series is based on. I read quite a bit of Stephen King back in the 1980s, much to the consternation of my teachers, who hated Stephen King and all he represented. However, somewhere along the way I stopped reading King, though I did buy Joyland. I suspect Stephen King is one of those writers who are best read when you’re young and of course, his books always appealed to teenagers in particular, which is probably why parents and teachers in the 1980s hated them so much.

I didn’t have much hopes for the TV series. In fact, I only started watching it, because I’d heard good things from the US about the premiere (though interest seemed to have dropped off in latter episodes) and because there aren’t a whole lot of TV shows that appeal to me at the moment. I kept watching, because it was all rather intriguing. Besides, I like US small town stories and there are hardly any of them left on TV, compared to approx. fifteen to twenty years ago, when we had Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, American Gothic, Picket Fences (okay, so it was crap, but it was a small town story), In the Heat of the Night and so on. The last shows along those lines were Jericho and Gilmore Girls, neither of which was even remotely good. Now Under the Dome, the TV show, is no Twin Peaks or American Gothic or Northern Exposure, but it was fun enough to watch.

Warning: There are spoilers in the following.

But that ending… oh please! First of all, the ending resolves absolutely nothing. The dome is still up and we still don’t know where it comes from (aliens apparently). Though the monarch butterfly finally hatches, pink stars shoot into the sky and the dome turns from black back to white or translucent (it’s difficult to say), which distracts the townspeople from hanging Barbie for the moment. Or maybe not, cause it sure looks as if Junior is pulling that lever in the last scene. Talking of which, did the town library just happen to have a blueprint for a gallows with trap door, lever et al lying around? Cause those things aren’t all that easy to build and if you want to hang someone, a sturdy branch or a ceiling beam will do just as well.

iO9 didn’t like the finale either and also draws some comparisons to Lost. Now I don’t really see all that many parallels, except that both Lost and Under the Dome are speculative ensemble shows with weird stuff going on and more questions than answers. Besides, when I still watched Lost (I gave up fairly early, halfway through season 2) I never much cared about the mystery of the island, but was far more interested in the characters and their stories. Once Lost switched from character backstories to “What is the deal with the island?” I stopped watching. I did care a bit more about the mystery of the dome, but only because Under the Dome had less interesting characters than Lost in its early days.

Regarding the non-ending, I think Under the Dome suffers from a disease that affects many US-shows and increasingly British shows as well, namely the disease of stretching out a story long past its natural end. Under the Dome would have worked well as a 13-episode mini-series, but it doesn’t really need a second season. And while the ending of the Stephen King novel is depressing as hell (a fire breaks out and pretty much everybody dies), at least it is an ending.

I also wonder why no one ever commented on the nicknames of the two protagonists and main adversaries, Barbie and Big Jim respectively. Because if you were a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, those names will sure seem familiar, since both were names of massively popular toys of the era. I think anybody who grew up within the past fifty years will know who Barbie is. As for Big Jim, that was the name of a popular action figure line produced by Mattel between 1972 and 1986. Big Jim and Barbie were not just made by the same company, they were also roughly the same size. And I suspect macho muscleman Big Jim occasionally gave Ken a run for his money, when it came to courting Barbie. So basically, Under the Dome pits Big Jim and Barbie, two of the most popular toys of the 1970s and 1980s, against each other. Coincidence? I doubt it. In fact, I bet that the King kids had both Big Jim and Barbie toys, especially since they are about the right age. And Stephen King supposedly started writing the novel that eventually became Under the Dome sometimes in the early 1980s, but then abandoned it for thirty years. So he might well have included the toys his kids had as a sort of inside joke. Who knows, maybe it was even one of those writing challenges the members of the King family supposedly set each other on occasion?

What is more, supposedly the dome has only been up for two weeks by the time of the season finale. Two weeks, really? Considering how far the not so good people of Chester’s Mill have already regressed towards barbarism, I’d have thought it was a couple of months at least. In fact this is something that bothers me about pretty much every post-apocalyptic or major disaster book or film coming out of the US. The fact that perfectly normal people will start looting, murdering, raping, pillaging, starting wars with their neighbours and lynching people within a couple of days, if not weeks. The pattern is totally predictable at this point.

Even worse, it’s wrong. Because if you look at real life disasters such as earthquakes, major floods, power outages, etc… people generally cooperate and help each other. They don’t start robbing and killing their neighbours, just because they can. Sure, there are always jerks, such as the old woman who was interviewed on TV for the 50th anniversary of the devastating North Sea flood of 1962, who blithely told the interviewer that she sat on the roof of her flooded house and hoped that a neighbour, who was trapped in her house, would finally drown, so they would not have to hear her screams anymore. Horrid woman, she made me furious. However, that horrid woman and her family were rescued from the rising waters not by the fire brigade, the police or the army, but by a young man who had grabbed a row boat and ferried people to safety. Several other survivors told of a bakery behind the dyke (i.e. on dry land), which opened its door to those who had managed to flee the flood on time, fed them and allowed them to dry their clothes. People, real people, are better than the caricatures which populate post-apocalyptic fiction.

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4 Responses to Some Thoughts on “Under the Dome” and my problem with post-apocalyptic fiction

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    No, I think it’s a function of Stephen King. He has great beginnings and brilliant middles but his endings suck! I think I’m one of the few people who also think his book “On Writing” is crap. Maybe it works for Stephen King, and it’s a good excuse for writers who don’t believe that their endings should be internally consistent with the beginnings but, for the rest of it, his book is ho-hum…especially for a planner like me. Not surprised by your conclusion, shall give it a miss, but thanks for going the extra kilometre, Cora! 🙂 Much appreciated.

    • Cora says:

      Well, the ending of the book (which I haven’t read, so I’m going by the online synopsis here) is different from the series. The series has a non-ending, that’s not even a cliffhanger. The book has an ending, it’s just a depressing (almost) everybody dies ending, which isn’t all that unusual for Stephen King. There is a couple of other differences as well, e.g. a character who is a confused young man with creepy stalkerish tendencies in the series is a murder, necrophiliac rapist and full out villain in the novel. Though in King’s novel, it also takes barely two weeks for society to regress to barbarism. He doesn’t have a high opinion of his fellow Mainers.

      I don’t much care for On Writing either. It works as a memoir, but as a writing guide it’s mainly useful for writing like Stephen King, similar to how Elmore Leonard much quoted ten writing rules are only useful for writing like Elmore Leonard. I also blame King for reinforcing the prejudice against adverbs that was started by Strunk and White.

  2. I didn’t even know about the names of the characters Under the Dome. That makes things interesting like someone is playing with dolls. LOL!

    As for the <b.End of the World….I hope you’re right. We might have to found out ourselves…soon. 😉

    • Cora says:

      I think in the original novel, the dome is the result of some kind of alien game similar to humans playing with an ant farm, so maybe the name selection was deliberate to support that theme. Or maybe Stephen King was simply having a laugh by inserting the names of old toys as Easter eggs.

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