Mobile reception in Cambridgeshire is proving to be pretty dire, for me at the very least. 4G capabilities, sure, but as infrequently as 3G, or any network connection at all. My phone forces me out of the house to make calls, which at least gets me mobile, I suppose. But this isn't a blog complaining about EE service (this one is) - but it did inspire a short train of thought about the faulty telephone in contemporary screenwriting...
There's the writing cliché of a writing cliché - the writer is confounded by a new technology that potentially throws a lifeline to her isolated characters when she needs them to stay isolated. Time is tight on that re-draft - 'no signal'. And again the next time. How lazy.
Except, my phone constantly actually has no signal, and I'm not even near any dumb haunted house or anything. I can completely, like, yeah, identify?
The 'thwarted communication' trope is not new. Here's the granddaddy of them all:
FRIAR LAURENCE Welcome from Mantua: what says Romeo? Or, if his mind be writ, give me his letter. FRIAR JOHN Going to find a bare-foot brother out One of our order, to associate me, Here in this city visiting the sick, And finding him, the searchers of the town, Suspecting that we both were in a house Where the infectious pestilence did reign, Seal'd up the doors, and would not let us forth; So that my speed to Mantua there was stay'd. FRIAR LAURENCE Who bare my letter, then, to Romeo? FRIAR JOHN I could not send it,--here it is again,-- Nor get a messenger to bring it thee, So fearful were they of infection. FRIAR LAURENCE Unhappy fortune! by my brotherhood, The letter was not nice but full of charge Of dear import, and the neglecting it May do much danger. (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act V Scene 3)
It's not quite: 'Did you get hold of Romeo?' 'Nah, no signal.', but the intent and effect is the same. And 'much danger' pretty much covers it.
Another example: the old mistaking-a-sexual-partner-and-getting-away-just-because-it-is-dark trope in Jacobean drama such as in Shakey's Measure for Measure or Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling (and elsewhere I'm sure). Light pollution was obviously less of an issue in the seventeenth century than now but it surely must have stretched credibility even then. Yet up it pops in contemporary comedies such as, off the top of my head, Californication or The Boat that Rocked (or Operation Yewtree: The Musical as a wag on twitter had it). It's pretty creepy, and the 'Shakespeare did it' defence does not really cut it here, probably because of that credibility gap: while verisimilitude is something neither the Jacobean dramatists nor their audiences were wildly bothered about, visual film narrative hinges upon it.
Of course, contemporary-set film and television narrative has nothing at all to do with actual real life, of course, of course. Nobody actually talks like that, we don't patiently wait for each other to have a turn to speak, sometimes two people in a room have the same name, and so on, and so on. It's all a construct pretending to be connected to real life because some of the furniture looks similar.
But trope-y (tropic? tropical?) moments like these in drama are interesting maybe because they punch through as moments where the diligence of the creators or lack thereof is the most evident. Some seams are beautifully tailored, others you can pull the thread and everything unravels pretty quickly. In dumb movie upon dumb movie, our dumb horror victim can't connect to the network, because the writers just say so and it's obvious. Walter White, however, also can't get any signal out in the desert, but that makes complete sense because he went there to be nice and alone to cook meth, and he's also isolated himself from friends and family, morality, and so on. And, yeah, he's in a desert. It has been well-earned. (In actual fact, 'no signal' is not used that much in Breaking Bad as far as I remember. The opposite, 'Super Cell Reception' probably occurs more often.) See also the finale of True Detective (if you have). Because our antiheroes have pretty much burnt any and all bridges, there's no signal, so no backup, no cavalry. It wouldn't work if there was.
These are simple plot points, stretching the thematic connections too much is a bit flimsy. But the point is they work because they have been earned, the groundwork is there. They don't serve the story, they are the story. Our hero is lost, because there's no signal - because our hero is lost.
Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity has a great example, and I thoroughly recommend watching Jonás Cuarón's Aningaaq (around online or on the Gravity blu-ray), the short companion piece that shows the other side of one particular moment. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is stuck alone in space, cut off from ground control, about as isolated as humanly possible. Trying the radio, but we know it's pointless, her whole existence at that moment has 'no signal'. But she randomly makes radio contact with an Inuit fisherman in Greenland. This is not 'super cell reception' - an Inuit fisherman is not who she wants, the connection itself cannot save her materially (but it does completely save her) - and it even makes physical sense (assuming she is above Aningaaq, there is perhaps only a few hundred miles between them, much closer than Greenland is to pretty much everywhere earthbound). The conversation is stilted, doesn't advance the plot, but is absolutely beautiful and essential to the film.
Tropes like the non-phoning phone are so often the final straw for the exasperated story consumer - 'Like that would actually happen!' - the access point for our inarticulate disappointment. But watch again carefully the films that have carried you through, and you see the makers smoothly vault over these hurdles again and again like champion jockeys, without you ever noticing.
In summary: communication devices often fail, as do writers' imaginations, but not always at the same time. And I need a new phone.