Spoilers in this part for eps up to 5.12 Reckoning.
4. Voyage and Return
The fourth of Christopher Booker's seven plots is Voyage and Return. It groups together a very diverse group of stories, including Alice and Wonderland, Brideshead Revisted and Gone with the Wind. As this plot is not as instantly recognisable as many others, I'll quote Booker's summary in full:
The essence of the Voyage and Return story is that its hero or heroine (or the central group of characters) travel out of their familiar, everyday 'normal' surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disconcertingly abnormal. At first the strangeness of this new world, with its freaks and marvels, may seem diverting, even exhilerating, if also highly perplexing. But gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero or heroine feels increasingly threatened, even trapped: until eventually … they are released from the abnormal world, and can return to the safety of the familiar world where they began.
The journey that the lead character undergoes can take several forms. It may be a physical journey, or it may involve a voyage into an unfamiliar social environment (what Booker refers to as 'the social Voyage and Return'). There is a key difference between the hero of a Quest story and the hero in a Voyage and Return story. The heroes in a Quest know where they are going, they have a specific goal in mind. The hero in a Voyage and Return story has no such certainty. Often they are thrust into the new world unexpectedly. It 'just happens' to them. Often the event that precipitates their entry into the other world is violent or dramatic (a shipwreck, a plane crash, a neardeath experience).
Once in the 'unnatural' world, the hero undergoes various ordeals. The stories explore the character's ideas of what is normal. Alice falling down the rabbit hole and experiencing a world of topsy-turvy social and physical norms is a perfect, if exaggerated, example. At first this world may seem alluring and promising, but sooner or later the world becomes less pleasant, perhaps even threatening the character's survival. The hero escapes back to 'reality', but the following question is raised: has the experience changed them?
In terms of Smallville, I will examine three instances of the Voyage and Return plot being used. I believe it is used in abbreviated form as the plot of many individual episodes: the central experience of many of Smallville's weekly 'victims' is often that of Voyage and Return. Examples (with the 'abnormal' world in brackets) include: Pete and Chloe in Rush (life as an adrenelin rush), Lex in Heat (life with instant-wife), Lana and Chloe in Forever (trapped in high school forever). In each instance, as in many others, the central character experiences a dramatic shift in reality, which may seem alluring at first, but which proves to be ultimately dangerous and which they escape from at the end of the episode. They may or may not be changed by the experience.
4.1 Voyage and Return Example 1 (Lex)
One of the most perfect examples of the Voyage and Return plot occurred within the plot arc of Lexmas. Lex's 'fall' into the other world is triggered by being shot. As is typical in these plots, Lex's consciousness is 'in some way restricted'. We see him blur in and out of consciousness and it's possible that his visions are triggered by stimuli in the 'real' world (his mother's watch, the doctor's voice, etc).
The new world that Lex enters is ambiguous. We do not know for sure if he is experiencing a real future or simply a dream. This is classic Voyage and Return territory. At first he is shocked and puzzled by the new world ('What the…?!'), but it is also exhilerating because it is so different. The world that Lex enters is one of domestic bliss, of 'happy families' and 'goodness'. He is given a humanitarian award. He is loved by his family and friends. It is as far from Lex's normal 'home' as possible. He is drawn into the world, expressing his joy at buying a Christmas tree, enjoying a party with friends and finally witnessing the birth of his second child.
But the mood changes. The Frustration stage begins. The shadow that intrudes is that of death and grief. Lana's life is endangered and Lex struggles to retain control of this alien world. He does not know it's laws. It is still 'strange' to him. So we see him act as he would in his real life: he goes not to Jonathan but to his father to beg for help in the form of financial intervention. His father refuses.
The Nightmare stage occurs when Lex witnesses Lana's death and is powerless to prevent her passing. His grief is all-consuming and he rages at his vision guide, who takes the form of his mother. She tells him that this is just a normal part of life, that this too is part of the 'brighter' future Lex could have. But these words fail to connect with Lex. He doesn't recognise the truth of this world: that he is still loved despite the passing of one person. He cannot bear the pain. When he is jolted back to his 'real' life, the normal world, we see that the vision has only hardened him on his path. He is determined to obtain power and wealth at all costs, thinking that is the path to happiness. He could have taken a different lesson from the 'voyage', he could have decided that life with grief but also love was worth living, but he chooses instead a cold insular world because that other world was so cruel and harsh in its strangeness.
4.2 Voyage and Return Example 2: Clark
A simpler version of the Voyage and Return plot occurs when Clark is exposed to red Kryptonite for the first time in the episode Red. This is a lighter, more carefree example of the Voyage and Return plot. Although Clark remains in the same geographical location, his whole worldview is altered from the inside out. He experiences the world 'without inhibitions' and is transformed. At first his rebellion takes relatively harmless form: he talks back, he wants to skip studying, he buys new clothes. But gradually his actions become more and more extreme, until he becomes a danger to himself and others. In fighting so recklessly in the bar, he exposes his own secret (as well as potentially causing the deaths of others!). So a shadow falls over this new world that Clark uncovers. He is rescued from it by the help of his friends and his parents. Has it altered him? Yes, we learn it has. What is interesting about this example is that Clark will choose to return to this world of his own accord at a time of crisis. It represents escapism for him, but is ultimately not somewhere he can function 'successfully'.
4.3 Voyage and Return Example 3: Lana
Lana is the third lead character in Smallville. Until now, I have had little cause to mention her as she does not frequently appear as the hero of any of the first three plot types. Instead she is frequently rescued from the Monster by the hero (usually Clark) in the Overcoming the Monster story. In the Rags to Riches plot she represents the ultimate level of acceptance for Lex (Season 5), and in Clark's teenage years she has fulfilled the same symbolic purpose for him, although we know that Lois represents a more complete endpoint in the greater scheme of his life. It is true that Lana was the active hero in her own Quest plot in Season 4, but many viewers found this unengaging (see comments on my Quest essay for possible reasons why).
Lana has been given several Voyage and Return plots. As the 'victim' of many strange or near-death experiences, she knows what it is like to be thrust into a topsy-turvy world temporarily, and to have the normal world reassuringly reinstated. At the start of Season 4, Lana sees a space ship land during a meteor shower (after having survived a helicopter crash). She sees aliens in human form emerge. This experience profoundly affects her. She develops an interest in astronomy and seems to develop a fascination with the spaceship and its possibilities. She even posits to Clark that an alien could have been living among them for years.
But this is not the classic Voyage and Return plot, you may be thinking. And you're right: there will be no miraculous return to the old 'normal' world for Lana. So the plot only occurs in incomplete form, but I still think it's an interesting case to explore. Bear with me…
Lana's fascination with this new reality places a strain on her relationship with Clark, who hides the secret of his identity from her. Eventually, in Reckoning, he decides his only hope in preserving the relationship is to confide in Lana. He takes her to the caves and to the Fortress of Solitude. Lana is overawed by the experience she has long desired: for Clark to share his true nature with her. Rather like a heroine in a Rags to Riches story, she is rewarded for her loyalty and good nature with ascenscion to a new 'kingdom', complete with a prince and a happy ending.
But it's too good to be true. Literally. A shadow looms. Lana has developed an awkward but genuine friendship with Lex, who has been sharing information about the spaceship with her. But Lana cannot hide her changed status from Lex. He sees that she has entered the hidden world that he too wishes access to. This precipitates a confrontation, a car chase and ultimately Lana's death. Her life is endangered by the secret. Even if the viewer doesn't buy Clark's surface-level assumption that telling Lana his secret resulted in her death, it's undeniable that knowing his secret will put her in extreme danger. The beautiful glittering world has a dark side. In this case Clark changes history to avoid the final tragedy.
But where does this place Lana? She is trapped in an inbetween world. She suspects the truth but doesn't know its full dimensions. She is unable to return to a 'normal' status of ignorance about the aliens. And she's completely disempowered. Clark has acted as god figure and aborted her Voyage, but Lana herself is none the wiser. She has, once again, limited personal agency.
Smallville often uses elements of the Voyage and Return plot. I think it's a bit of a 'hidden' Smallville plot structure. In the bigger scheme of things, the show centres on Clark's experiences, which are not often that of Voyage and Return. But within individual episodes we sometimes get to see things from the perspective of other characters who may have their worlds turned temporarily upside down. The use of this plot allows the Smallville writers to explore different possibilities and ideas without upsetting the status quo.
In exploring these three very different instances of the Voyage and Return plot being used in Smallville, I found a common thread: in each case the plot results in the reinforcement of the relevant hero character's status quo or defining characteristics. The Voyages often serve as cautionary tales. Even Lexmas, which could have been an inspired vision, was taken by Lex as a warning against choosing the moral path. Red Kryptonite may be liberating but it brings dangers and Clark learns (eventually) to avoid its allure, another step on the path to him becoming Superman.
Lana's Voyages are perhaps the most intriguing of all, because they so often serve to demonstrate her 'trapped' nature (think of her in the glass house in Forsaken or frozen in Forever). Lana herself does not wish to be trapped. She wars against it, even leaving Smallville for Paris at the end of Season 3. But she can't seem to break out of any of her experiences herself. If normality is restored for her, it is at the discretion of a godlike hero-character.
In many cases the only thing the characters in Smallville take away from the experiences of the Voyages is a reinforced sense of inevitable destiny. Sometimes this takes the form of active commitment on the character's part, but at other times it seems truly unavoidable.
Aside: Doesn't Lana say in Reckoning that she never knew the caves were there? Because I swear there is a scene in Season 2 where she wanders down there to find Clark, isn't there?
As always, thoughts and discussion welcomed.