If you are a fan of Game of Thrones I guess it cannot escaped your notice that there were a few, shall we say, logistical issues with ‘Beyond the Wall’ (episode 6 of the latest series). Issues that included not only faster than light Dragons and Ravens but also people that can move at that speed.
In a recent interview, the Director of that episode, Alan Taylor, defended these issues.
‘I’ve only looked at one review online, and it was very much concerned with the speed of the ravens. I thought, that’s funny — you don’t seem troubled by the lizard as big as a 747, but you’re really concerned about the speed of a raven. It is true there are time issues, and I’m not exactly sure how many kilometers there are between Eastwatch and Dragonstone. But it was a bit dreary to hear somebody who said, “I cannot enjoy this episode because, you know, that speed of that raven … ” There’s was a lot of wonderful stuff going on here and if it really gets that much in your way, that’s not good to hear. But that said, Gendry’s a really great runner. [Laughs.] Ravens go super fast. And who’s to say how much time passes on that island, since it’s always sort of an eternal twilight north of the Wall? With those three ideas in mind, I think we can lay the timing concerns to rest.’
Now, this is an interesting defence and one which is not new. ‘But there are dragons’ or something similar is a statement that has been made about fantasy settings in tabletop RPGs, books, TV shows, films and LRP for decades. And on the surface it is a reasonable argument. Why are you concerned about the petty logistical issues when there are such fantastical elements blatantly on display? Surely everything can be explained by magic?
With this argument we do, however, get into one of the fundamental pillars of world building. Regardless of your fantasy elements, there need to be consistent and visible rules to govern how they function. In a post in this blog a while back I discussed some of the reasons for this and argued that not only does the human mind react badly to blatant rules breaking in settings, but also that the rules set limits on what is possible and therefore increase the tension and thus drive the story. For this to work, you have to accept that magic cannot (and should not) be capable of solving all problems, at least not without a cost and that other fantastical elements such as mythical creatures need to have well defined specifications.
There is also the issue of pacing and direction here. Most storytelling forms can and often do play fast and loose with time. I mean we really don’t want to spend hours of screen time watching some people trudge through snow when nothing of interest is happening and a good director can play with these rather fluid perceptions of time to good effect. How long were they waiting there surrounded by an army of undead? It is heavily implied by the direction that it is a day but the above quote seems to suggest longer was intended. It feels here that the intention to fool the audience with time has backfired somewhat – certainly based on the many responses which assume the less than 24 hours theory.
Looking at the above response we have three things that are problematic. The first is Gendry being able to run, in bitter cold and hostile terrain, an unknown number of miles back to Eastwatch after an indeterminate number of days marching through the same terrain. OK, yes, he may be a fast runner and he may have inherited something of a heroic constitution from his father. However, he is not a native of that part of the world. He was born and lived most of his life in a climate that was more like southern France than the bitter cold of the north. He is strong because of his genes and his work as a blacksmith (which is what makes his strongarm antics with the hammer plausible) but he has never been shown to be a particularly good runner. We can add some points for him being driven by urgency but you still have to question how long it takes to do that journey. Maybe it would have been more plausible if it had been Tormond – a native of the terrain they were traversing – or even Jon who has Stark genes and therefore resistant to the cold? Of the three points, this one is the one that could maybe be excused on the points made, although it is stretching credulity. If they were close enough to the wall that he could get there that quickly, why not have a signal prepared for Eastwatch to look out for – a beacon or similar? Something to let them know they needed help. After all, they already had two flaming swords so fire was not an issue.
The second issue is the speed of the ravens. Again, arguments that Westeros Ravens are fast do cover some of this. It has been established that there is a complicated and efficient mail service that uses them and so it is reasonable to assume that breeding methods, training and possibly some magic may well go into this. However, it is still stretching it to assume that even a fast bird could cover that distance in less than 24 hours. Previously the raven mail has been seen as providing delivery within a couple of days (within similar limits to a modern postal service) rather than a few hours.
The final issue is, of course, the dragons. Again, these can be fast but there to be some consideration of the people on the back of the dragon. An exposed dragon rider going at anything more than the speed of a car is going to be exposed to a lot of elements. Think about the issues of driving a motorbike or one of the old fashioned biplanes. You need goggles and protective clothing to prevent wind chill and damage to the eyes from insects and dust even at relatively low speeds. The fastest WWI biplane (arguably the fastest plane an exposed pilot could be on before you get into vehicles that require a completely enclosed cockpit and pressurisation) is listed (ironically enough) as the Sopwith Dragon with a top speed of just under 150mph. Beyond that speed you can imagine it would be difficult even with protection for a human to be safe and comfortable and here we have a rider with no such protection. OK, again you can argue the Targaryen genes here – her family has been riding dragons for centuries so there has to be some adaptation happening there – but still to push the speed much beyond that 150mph is not really practical. Point being, unless dragons can teleport, it is stretching it to be able to say they can cross a continent so quickly.
The goal has to be the suspension of disbelief. The writer, having set the rules of the world in place, needs to then make sure that these are maintained and, if it is necessary to break them at all, it is done in a way that seems plausible. I think the main issue here is the fact that there were many ways the same effects could have been achieved without breaking that suspension. I have already mentioned the possibility of a signal to Eastwatch – a very quick communication tool which, if the guards had been on alert, would have got the message there much quicker than a running person. The rest can have been achieved with some advance planning using existing features of the world that have already been well established. For example, Bran as the Three Eyed Raven has the ability to communicate across vast distances and could have got that message to Dragonstone almost instantly. A raven to Winterfell from Eastwatch in a short space of time is a lot more believable than one all the way to Dragonstone. But there is an even more realistic way to achieve it. What if the dragons had already been en route in preparation for this very thing? What if they were already at Eastwatch waiting for word? Easy enough to establish with some scenes of them arriving, much to the consternation of the Wildlings in the fortress, or even a scene where it is Daenerys who comes out of the fortress to find Gendry collapsed with exhaustion at the gate.
You could even have it so that Bran at some point delivers a prophesy to Daenerys – telling her she needs to be there at a certain point but there will be a dire cost (which any who watched the episode already know). She angsts about it for a bit, not sure what to do, which is more important – her war with the Lannisters or the war against the undead? But then, finally, gives the order to mount up and arrives just as she is needed, maybe dramatically almost but not quite too late to save the day entirely.
There are probably other ways to achieve the same thing, all of which end with the same awesome scene of dragons flaming through undead hordes. I’d argue that a surprise appearance of dragons that was signposted in advance (Chekov’s dragon) is far more satisfying a conclusion than ‘suddenly dragons’ in a way which leaves confusing questions about plausibility. It was not that the scene was overly fantastic or that questioning the plausibility was pointless in the face of fantasy elements. Rather, it was that three rather ludicrous situations had to occur at the same time in order for the plot to work and even in a world where dragons are a thing people will still subconsciously take those dragons more seriously if they can see a logical set of rules that govern them. Once you start to mess with perceived plausibility you lose suspension of disbelief and once you lose that you lose the audience’s trust.