izhilzha (izhilzha) wrote,
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Musings on a RetCon Done Right

Basically, this is an essay about how I'm assimilating what's happened with a certain character on Numb3rs, and how easily I've gone with the changes, to the point where I'm finding a now-AU story somewhat difficult to write.

(Yes, I am deliberately trying to minimize spoilers. kalquessa and astrogirl2, you are not allowed behind this cut--it will *ruin* some of late season 3 and early season 4 for you. You can bookmark it for later.)


Colby Granger, Special Agent for the Federal Buearu of Investigation...and undercover counter-intelligence agent.

I'm not sure I've ever been in (or heard of) a fandom where the creators retroactively altered the viewer's perspective of a character this much--and made it work. I do not normally lurk in the Colby-fen side of this fandom, so I cannot speak to the reactions of BNFs there such as MizEm, but to generalize from other fen's reactions, the twist is widely accepted, and has generated a lot of sympathy and admiration for a character who was not a general favorite.

I'll admit, here, that I didn't like Colby much when he was introduced at the start of the second season ("Judgment Call"); we had lost Agent Terry Lake without warning, and her replacements (Colby Granger and Megan Reeves) took some time to grow on me. Colby, in particular, I wasn't fond of. He looked and acted like a typical jock, exactly the type of guy I do not usually like in Real Life, and many fen quickly assumed him to be--well--not particularly bright. The creators did (and still do) use Colby as a foil for the academics like Charlie, someone to ask questions and bring the flight of math theory down to the practical case-solving level. ("Meanwhile, back in the parking lot..." Colby, "Double Down")

It was his humor, and the camaraderie that Colby developed with David (the duo has been dubbed "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" by recapper theoriginalspy) and with Megan (affectionate teasing), that led me to give him more of a chance. The creators have gone out of their way a few times to let Colby have opportunities to show his skills ("Rampage," "One Hour"), and the picture that began to emerge was one of a strong man, a quick thinker, someone dedicated to his job, who had managed to keep a sense of humor through his Army time in Afghanistan. It was hard not to like this guy, and I actually came to disagree with the prevalent fannish opinion that he was stupid.

Even when there did seem to be some canon evidence for said stupidity, particularly in an episode called "The Mole." We learned a lot about Colby as we watched him interact with his Army buddy Dwayne Carter, discover that Dwayne was spying for the Chinese, and reluctantly help the FBI take Dwayne into custody. Colby made a couple of idiotic choices during the case: he found evidence that Dwayne might have murdered someone, and instead of reporting it, he confronted Dwayne on his own. Colby kept things from Don, his boss, and nearly got himself kicked off the team for it.

Many fans condemned his actions. I agreed that they weren't the smartest moves in the book, but this episode struck me for a different reason: the sense of the loyalty Colby owes to Dwayne, who pulled him out of a burning truck in Afghanistan. It made sense to me that Colby had a hard time straightening out his priorities with that weighing so heavily on him. Was it dumb not to tell Don what he'd learned? Absolutely. Was it understandable, for a man so apparently driven by his sense of personal loyalty? Yes. That sense of loyalty is what really endeared Colby to me.

And it was Colby as defined by his sense of loyalty that made the ending of the season 3 finale ("The Janus List") so hard for me to handle. Don't mistake me; I found the episode to be one of the series' best, intriguing, intense, and shocking in its final revelation. But it didn't matter how well-written the episode was, or how convincing Colby sounded as he sat in the interrogation room opposite Don and confessed to being a Chinese spy for 2 years. I didn't believe it. After two years of slowly getting to know Colby, of finding him to be a strong and dedicated, if not always terribly bright, agent, I couldn't accept the story at face value.

Some fans did. For them, Colby's actions in "The Mole" took on a whole new perspective with this revelation. These fans put Colby into the same "dumb as a box of rocks" (to quote jlm110108) category as his traitorous friend Dwayne Carter as someone who could be selling out his country for money or other personal gain.

However, a large majority of the fandom didn't buy it. For myself, I could not accept that a man so driven by the concept of loyalty (and with "five generations of honor, duty, following orders" in his family's military background) could actually be a traitor. If he was, I figured, it would have to be for a freakishly good or shockingly personal reason, something that would completely override his entire moral programming. (Heck, even with Dwayne in "The Mole," Colby eventually made the right choice and sold Dwayne out to the Feds.)

The summer was full of theorizing, and the fandom split into factions over this development, while remaining pretty well united (from what I saw) in anxiety and curiosity as to how this storyline would be resolved. I could not predict what the show's writers were actually up to, but I did write a fic (Sua Sponte) featuring Colby post-"Janus List", and found that my sympathies really lay with him, and that I was convinced that he was a decent and moral human being. The responses to my fic indicated that even the fans who were ready to condemn Colby outright as a spy, who were not questioning his confession at all, appreciated my perspective and agreed with me that Colby was a decent guy...even though they also assumed he was a traitor.

That spoke volumes to me about how Colby had been consistently presented to the audience.

Cheryl Heuton, one of the creators of Numb3rs, answered a fan question during the summer about when the "Janus List" storyline was devised. She answered that "[the Colby arc was planned on] For a significant part of Season 3." (I believe she clarified this somewhere by stating that the arc had its genesis around or just after "The Mole" was written and shot, but I cannot find the place where she may have said this.) In essence, if they had planned for Colby to truly be a spy, they had 2/3 of a season to plant more evidence for us to grab onto when the inevitable was revealed.

They didn't do it. That alone convinced me that Colby's story was more complicated than what we were given in "The Janus List."

When "Trust Metric" aired, the majority of fandom was proven correct in their belief and theories: Colby was not a double agent for the Chinese, but a triple agent working for U.S. Counter-Intelligence. He told his team part of the truth in his confession, of course; he had been lying to them for 2 years, and he had been "spying for the Chinese government" during that time, or at least pretending to.

I have to admire the writers' ingenuity in fitting this backstory into existing canon; as presented in "Trust Metric" and the following episodes, it does not contradict any of the solid canon we already had for Colby. I have not yet re-watched "The Mole" to see how well they managed to fit into the details given there, but at the very least it makes sense of Colby's strange decision-making during that case. In the season 4 opener, Colby tells Don in the interrogation that Dwayne approached him for small favors: passwords to databases, stuff like that. "And before [he] knew it, [he] was spying for the Chinese." A major hurdle in this retcon was the shock that Colby displays on figuring out that Dwayne is, in fact, spying for China. It may not fit in perfectly, but thinking about Colby's actions in terms of a triple agent trying to maintain two sides to his cover makes sense. He's trying to keep Dwayne from realizing that he's onto him already, and so acts shocked; and he's got to keep Don and co. in the dark about his hush-hush assignment, as well, and operates outside team protocol in an attempt to keep his gateway to the Chinese (Dwayne) open as long as he can.

Stupid? Not this Colby. A lot of the fandom is (mostly graciously) eating crow regarding Colby's intelligence right now.

For myself, I'm loving this entire development. Colby as hero, Colby as a smart, determined, insanely brave and devoted agent....wow. His character just gained a huge amount of layers, and I'm so impressed.

But I've noticed that although I'm enjoying the change, and reveling in the new light it brings to older episodes, it's also thrown my Numb3rs fic muse for a loop. Specifically, I have a Numb3rs/The Sentinel crossover fic that I started just after the end of season 2. It's already AU on several counts (I kick it off by killing a recurring Numb3rs character, and totally expect some hate mail when I finally post the story), and I've made my peace with that; but I'm having a tough time figuring out what to do with my perception of Colby as regards this specific story.

I see two possibilities: either I wholly embrace this new information about Colby, and just think of how it must have been for him pre-"The Mole," when he was in a pretty passive undercover position. I write Colby the way I would write him now, but nobody knows anything about this backstory; it's not going to come up, anyway.

Or I choose to think of him, in this story only, as the simpler and less brilliant man that I thought him when I began working on this story. I'm not sure I can do that, actually; and I know that part of my characterization of him has already changed a bit, because of how much more fond of Colby I became after seeing "The Mole."

But it's not a creative problem I've ever encountered before, and I'm intrigued by the way my mind is struggling with this. Anyone out there have similar experiences with writing AUs that fail to take some dramatic character work into account? I'd be very, very interested in hearing about them.


All comments welcome, of course; and please point out any errors or additional perspectives. Discussion is half of what I live for in fandom!


x-posted to real_numb3rs
Tags: character arcs, essay, fan fic, fandom, my fics, numb3rs, real_numb3rs, writing
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