I really wanted to like the new NBC series Kings. I’ve always enjoyed alternate history stories and putting modern twists on classic tales. Furthermore, there has been little that is creative and innovative on broadcast TV lately, even before the current economic crunch. For the first hour of the Kings pilot, I enjoyed the show. But one scene completely threw off my interest.
For those of you who don’t know about the show, Kings is a retelling of the Biblical story of King Saul and David in the 21st century. Saul is represented by Silas Benjamin, king of a newly unified monarchy called Gilboa. (A modern-day Israel with an even more impressive skyline and government buildings than the real modern-day Israel.) In a war with their northern enemy Gath, a young soldier named David Shepherd (no explanation needed), rescues Silas’ son Jack. In the rescue, David destroys a tank named Goliath (again, no explanation needed).
Even though Kings tracked the original Biblical story closely – even with cell phones, TVs, and digital SLR cameras – it was still fascinating to watch. That was until the scene that threw me off.
And it was a simple scene. David found a piano in one of the rooms in the palace and started playing it. (Apparently, there were no harps around.) He explained that he was playing a Lizst composition, and that the piano was from 1848 when Lizst wrote it.
First of all, Lizst was a real composer from a real country (Hungary) in a real continent (Europe). So, where is this Gilboa? What continent is it on? Where are real countries in relation to it? And during Lizst’s life, the real Europe was going through changes that would make absolute monarchies in the Western world like Gilboa obsolete. So, how did political changes that swept across the globe pass this apparently modern, technologically advanced country by?
And if Kings places the Biblical story of David and Saul in the 21st century, what about the original David and Saul? Did the events in the Bible still happen, or do the events in Kings move them forward? And if Kings is a “rescheduling” of Biblical events, first of all, there wouldn’t an “1848.” In Christianity, David is considered Jesus’ ancestor. If David wasn’t born until shoulder pads and parachute pants were popular, where is Jesus? If Jesus hadn’t been born yet, there wouldn’t be an “A.D.”
There also wouldn’t be a Lizst either. Whether directly related or not, Western art and culture stems from the Judeo-Christian Bible. Think of all the masses and sacred works written by Mozart and Bach. Great literature such as Moby Dick and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Even in secular works, the Bible provides a rich source for metaphors and themes. The story of David and Goliath has often been used to encourage underdogs to stand up to the powerful. Think of how different our culture would be without this story. (In Kings, “David Beats Goliath” splashes across the front page without irony, as if this never happened before.)
Good alternate history incorporates all the implications of what these historical changes cause. Harry Turtledove does a great job of doing this in his work, especially in his Civil War series.
In Kings, the implications of a world where David and Saul didn’t exist until the 21st century haven’t been hammered out. The Judeo-Christian Bible has made Western civilization the way it is today. Without it, not only wouldn’t there have been a Lizst, there might not have been modern business, the Internet, or digital SLRs. It would be like showing Edison invent the light bulb and then have someone post a video of it on YouTube.
Kings could have learned from an earlier series on NBC, one that was also highly creative and innovative for its time. An original Star Trek episode portrayed a Roman Empire in modern times where gladiator fights were on TV with ads for cars like the “Jupiter 8.” Towards the end of the episode, Lieutenant Uhura said that she was picking up broadcasts from state radio criticizing a new religion that “worshipped the Son.” She realized that the “Son” was a modern-day Jesus. The crew remarked, “It’s great to see it happening all over again.”
To me, that is alternative history (especially Biblical alternative history) done right.