Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Breaking Bad, Doctor Who, and the Mystery of Originality

Like many people, I came to Breaking Bad late, and then overcompensated by binge-watching the entire series over several weeks, culminating in a self-imposed Twitter and Facebook ban while I frantically sought to catch up to the finale without getting spoiled. (By the way, the complete series comes out on DVD and blu-ray today.)

I’m not going to analyze the ending of the show, though I highly recommend the following reads for that: Grantland, the Onion AV Club, the New Yorker, and the Cockamamie Theories blog.

What intrigued me from a writer’s standpoint was the The Washington Post’s description of the show as “completely original.” Critic Hank Steuver writes, “In a hyper-media era in which so much is derivative of something else, we sometimes lose sight of the value of the completely original epic. Breaking Bad may have drawn from the greatest tools of dramatic tragedy, but it was not based on or adapted from anything that came before…”

This article sent me into a tailspin. Was it really true? Was it even possible? Had showrunner/creator Vince Gilligan come up with something 100% original?

Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary on 11/23
Likewise, an article by Jill Lepore in the November 11th issue of the New Yorker stated, “Doctor Who is the most original science-fiction television series ever made.”

But surely the show’s creator, Sydney Newman, was inspired by art, history, or media that came before, just like the rest of us. Right?

As a writer, I tend to over-concern myself with the question of originality. I worry I’ll never come up with anything that hasn’t already been done.

And then I remember that isn’t the point.

Austin Kleon’s blog-post-turned book, “Steal Like an Artist” theorizes that there’s nothing new under the sun. As writers and creators, we constantly refer to that which came before, and there’s nothing wrong with that; Kleon believes, “You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.”

I was curious what strange and wondrous works of art had influenced Vince Gilligan when he created Breaking Bad (about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth kingpin), so I dug around online. Here’s what I discovered:

1) The logline Mr. Gilligan used to pitch the project was “Turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
2) The concept of using an RV to cook meth sprung from a news story and a joke with a fellow writer
3) Walt’s wife, Skyler, was described to actress Anna Gunn early on as “Carmela Soprano, but in on the crime.”
4) The finale episode, titled “Felina,” was influenced by and even partially based on the song El Paso.
5) Walt and Jesse’s last moments were inspired by a scene in “The Searchers.”

Knowing that such a wide and varied list of influences (Westerns! The Sopranos!  Music!  Film!) were thrown into the mix makes me love Breaking Bad even more.

As for Doctor Who, a British institution that concerns the fantastical adventures of a do-good time-traveler, the New Yorker article confirms that a bizarre mixture of influences went into the program’s creation. They include:

1) HG Wells
2) The Day the Earth Stood Still
3) “Sherlock Holmes with a Female Watson” (Which explains why The Doctor is joined by a young lady companion; it should be noted that this is also the premise of the CBS show Elementary, though you'd never the confuse the two shows!)
4) World War II and specifically Nazis (Which become Daleks, the Doctor’s long-running enemies.)

The above examples help prove that by enhancing, altering, combining, and changing the things we love, we turn them into new and precious compounds, as conceived through our personal lenses and experiences.

Writers, take heart: No one else sees the world quite like you do, and no matter what “mashup” you bring to the table, it will be unique.


Sarah Skilton’s upcoming Young Adult mystery, HIGH AND DRY (April 15, 2014) -- about a high school soccer player scrambling to clear his name after being framed and blackmailed -- was partially inspired by the films In a Lonely Place and Brick, the TV series Veronica Mars, the book The Long Goodbye, two Broadway musicals, and more…


  1. The only time you ever go wrong is if you submit a story to the wrong publisher. Some fantasy publishers, for instance, don't want Tolkienesque stories with elves and dwarves, while others adore them when done well. Oh, yeah, and flat-out plagiarism...

  2. I adore Dr. Who and have for years because of the confluence of familiar stories and themes that flow through the Tardis emerging with a new face. Great post, Sarah. Breaking Bad will be my winter break binge.

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