The ‘what if?’ question. It lies at the heart of all the best speculative fiction. It’s a simple little two-word question that can lead to so many great premises that span multiple genres – alternate history, science fiction, horror, dystopian, apocalyptic – to name but a few.
A few examples (that aren’t ‘what if the Nazis won the Second World War?’):
What if vampires existed and relocated to a small American town? (Salem’s Lot)
What if extraterrestrial parasites (Pod People) colonised our planet by creating replicas of ourselves? (The Body Snatchers)
What if Napoleon had escaped from St Helena and reached America? (Napoleon in America)
And of course, my own meagre contributions in the pop culture/dystopian fields:
What if John Lennon had lived?
What if the 2011 London riots had never ended?
It’s all about imagination – that great and glorious distraction. According to Einstein, imagination is better than knowledge. So remember that teachers – don’t ever chastise the kid sitting in class who’s playing with someone else’s glasses case because he’s pretending it’s the Batwing and that Batman is sitting inside and he’s about to save the world from the Joker or the Penguin or The Riddler or some other evil, costumed psychopath.
Yes this kid was me.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. That means it’s better than algebra.
It’s also great fun too, which is pretty much what this post is all about. You can apply the ‘what if?’ thing to anything and run with it. So with that in mind, I’m going to do a little ‘what if?’ exercise in relation to one of my favourite fictional film characters of the past thirty-five years.
Hope you enjoy.
What we talk about when we talk about Ivan Drago.
Usually it goes like this: Hey, what the hell happened to that guy?
He’s one of cinema’s most iconic Soviet characters – the pugilist Goliath with the chilling pre-fight one liners. But what happened to Ivan Drago after the fight with Rocky Balboa on Christmas Day in 1985? This question has become the greatest mystery in the history of the Rocky franchise, even more so now that we know who won that unofficial third fight between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed (go watch Creed if you don’t know the answer).
Ivan Drago – a towering symbol of Soviet superiority. We met him in Rocky IV, just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about but I assume if you got this far then you probably do. He was a powerhouse, an anabolic steroid-popping 6’5, blond, spiky haired super soldier. He was also a heavyweight boxer who brutally killed Apollo Creed in what was supposed to be a harmless exhibition bout. It was as a direct result of this tragedy that Drago got a chance to prove himself against heavyweight champion (and Apollo’s pal) Rocky Balboa in a non-title fight, scheduled for Christmas Day in the Soviet Union.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what happens next. After beating Rocky senseless for most of the fight (if that was a real fight it would’ve been stopped in the first twenty seconds), Drago got knocked out in the last round. And if I remember correctly, the last we saw of this fallen Soviet Demigod was him sitting on his stool, battered and broken, while Rocky was giving his post-fight speech which as you may remember single handedly ended the Cold War.
So there you go. Ivan Drago – just another vanquished foe in the Rocky canon.
But although he was the villain of Rocky IV, I always felt a little bit sorry for Drago. The Soviet government and the fans treated him like he was a piece of meat after all. To them, he was nothing more than a symbol of supposed Soviet superiority over the Americans. And when he lost that fight with Rocky – well, they bailed on him pretty damn quick. In fact, as soon as the crowd suspected that Rocky might actually win the bout, they started cheering his name like a bunch of over-excited fan girls in drab clothing.
That’s loyalty for you right there ladies and gentlemen.
So what of Drago? Where did the character go after such a crushing and humbling experience? Back to the military? Did he quit boxing altogether? Did he disappear to the Far East to make whisky commercials for the rest of his life? Or did he end up appearing on the Russian version of Celebrity Big Brother?
I believe this kind of mental rambling makes for good writing practice. At best it’s a light workout for the imagination and just in case you didn’t know, the imagination is a muscle that needs regular exercise. Neglect it and it will neglect you back when you need it most.
So then – what if old man Drago was a recluse living in the backwoods of Russia? How would this story play out? Well, let’s assume that Drago was born in 1956 or 1957 (Dolph Lundgren was born in 1957 so we’ll go with the idea that he’s around sixty years of age in 2017.) There are many speculative possibilities when it comes to the fate of Drago, but I’m going to go with the idea that he’s become something a recluse and a minor legend.
The idea below is incomplete but if I was going to sketch something, it’d probably begin like this.
The old man lives in a tiny village in a remote part of Russia. It’s a hamlet really, no place that anybody’s ever heard of because nobody in their right mind would go there. Not unless they were looking for something or someone in particular.
It’s a cruel and yet majestic environment, surrounded by snow, mountains and wild animals. The only people who live there are hard men and women who’ve lived hard lives all their lives. They’re the kind of rugged, hard-to-kill people that should no longer exist in the twenty first century what with all its comfort, convenience and technological innovation. They’re throwbacks to another era; their dark, leathery skin, the giant hands shaped like shovels, and the narrow deep-set eyes that speak of appalling hardship.
These are his people now.
He sits in the bar every night. It’s the only bar in town, a dingy little shack with no more than a handful of people inside at any one time. But that’s where you’ll find him, a solitary, towering figure sitting up at the counter with a shot glass of vodka always in front of him.
His blond hair has long since lost its youthful shine. Now it falls down to his shoulders, a dirty and neglected mane that looks like it might be a flea’s paradise. Most of his face is submerged underneath a chaotic beard that would give any pair of scissors a run for its money. His massive bulk, still muscular thanks to thirty years of manual labour, is buried under a thick, padded red and black checked shirt. Nobody can recall seeing him dressed in anything different – not since he first came to this place from the city, and that was a long time ago.
He always drinks alone. The locals ignore him for the most part and he ignores them back. But sometimes visitors do pass through the area, drawn to this little nowhere settlement by the enduring legend of Drago. They want so much to see the man who even after all these years, is still a symbol – a symbol of something that hasn’t been forgotten in these wild parts. They come in and they gawp silently at the man, even if it’s just from the other side of the room.
Nobody in their right mind would dare to approach him.
But the odd crazy person has been known to pass through these parts.
One guy in particular was still bitter about what happened. It had been over thirty years since that day in Moscow but there were some people who hadn’t forgiven Drago for letting them down – for letting the country that was no more and its ideology down.
This guy wanted nothing more than to fight Drago, one on one. He wanted to show the old man up in front of all the people who were there in the bar that winter’s night. Show him up for the quitter that he undoubtedly still was in that loser’s yellow heart of his. This guy, it turns out, had been looking for Drago for a long time. Long before anyone figured out where Drago was, this guy had been trawling the unimaginably vast former Soviet Union for more years than he could remember. By the time he found Drago, the man was in his fifties and certainly, he was no slouch himself in the physical department. He was well over six feet tall, with thick powerful arms and broad shoulders that like Drago, also suggested a life of hard labour.
The man just stood there, staring across the room at Drago. His eyes were bright and alert, which suggested that he wasn’t crazy and that he was in his right mind while doing this thing he was doing.
It escalated quickly from staring to insults.
For several minutes, he just stood there, hurling abuse at the old man, who like always, was sitting at the other end of the bar.
All the while, this guy who didn’t look crazy, he crept closer to the statue-like figure.
Drago put down his glass of vodka on the counter. With a mournful sigh that seemed to reverberate against the wooden walls of the shack, he slowly turned his tortured, weather-beaten face towards the man that was insulting him.
The old man slipped off the barstool in the blink of an eye. Just for a second, he was an athlete again – the celebrated fighter who had an amateur record of one hundred wins and no defeats. He was the man who had killed the great Apollo Creed with his hands in a boxing ring in Las Vegas. And now there he was, standing tall like a grizzly bear on two feet – the great boxer once again, standing in the middle of the ring, listening to the national anthem – Gimn Sovetskogo Soyuza – playing in his head as he prepared for battle…
Well, that’s how I’d start it off anyway. Something like that. It needs work of course, but it’s kind of fun to speculate where the story might go from there. How about you? Got any ideas where I could go with this one? Should a dragon come crashing through the window at the last minute? No? Okay. Well feel free to jump in or suggest your own alternatives for the fate of Drago, or any other characters in the Rocky series.
Putting Rocky aside – maybe you have another fictional character with a fate you’d like to speculate on? If so, let me know. I’d love to hear some ideas.
Coming back to Drago for the finish – there is just a wee smidgen of a chance that we might find out what happened to the character on the big screen. We just need this movie to get made.
Until next time.
Over and out.