Three golden rules for science fiction

What’s gone wrong with science fiction shows this year? It looked set to be a good year, with a spattering of returning shows and a good crop of new ones coming in. Sitting at the end of the year looking at the list though, there are very few successes, a lot of mediocrity and a couple of high profile failures.

The most embarrassing failure of all has been FlashForward. Promoted to death as the new Lost, launched with a pretty decent pilot it barely made it out of the gate before its ratings collapsed and the critics turned on it. For me there are three big problems with FlashForward, and they’re representative of what’s been wrong with some of the other sf shows this year.

Yes, yes Mr Showrunner* you’ve got Big Ideas – parallel universes, complex analogies, virtual reality, fate and whatnot. You’ve also got a big budget and a giant marketing team. But you have to actually deliver that. If you’re presenting yourself as smart, you need to BE smart.

I need to have confidence in the people that are making a show that they know what they’re doing, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. It doesn’t matter if every episode is action and excitement melded into a perfect 45 minutes, if the next week you contradict everything that happened I’m rapidly going to get annoyed. But at the same time it doesn’t matter if you have an amazing plan for a five year series if every episode is really dull, I’ll rapidly get bored. It’s a difficult middle ground to hit, but it is achievable – go back to and watch Babylon 5. That’s how you create a masterpiece.

2Charisma vacuums
My god there’ve been some boring characters this year! The lead character of FlashForward was just a kind of gaping, well paid hole where an engaging person should be. The cast of V looked so good on paper, but as it turned out by the end of the first episode the only ones I found interesting were the aliens (notably the Firefly duo of Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk). If on careful consideration I’ve evaluated your entire ensemble and have decided that in fact the best thing for you is to be eaten by the invading alien force, you’ve rather failed in your mission. I lasted half a dozen episodes and then gave up. Sure, the show is shiny and some interesting ideas, but if I don’t care about anyone, I’m not gonna bother.

3Lighten up!
The other big failure of the year for me was Caprica. I’m a big fan of Battlestar and thought this could be really interesting – same concept, different setting, characters and philosophy. Six or so episodes in and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Battlestar was never exactly laugh a minute, but at least they blew stuff up periodically and appreciated a nice fist fight or sarcastic aside. Caprica was the most depressing, soul destroyingly slow thing I’ve seen in a very long time. Battlestar seemed to be about hope in the face of overwhelming destruction, Caprica was about doom in the face of overwhelming shininess.

When it works… it works
Caprica and FlashForward both got good pilot reviews from me and then failed to deliver. On the flip side, Stargate Universe got a poor pilot review and then I cheerfully ate my words for the season review. The Stargate showrunners have been at this a while and I should have had more faith. They pulled it all together – it was smart AND fun, happy AND sad, sometimes characters moved forwards, sometimes they moved backwards, but they actually seemed like real people who it would be interesting to have coffee with. The confidence from the showrunners was quiet and reassuring – ‘we know what we’re doing, just trust us’.

I personally thought Defying Gravity had a lot of things going for it. I found it interesting and entertaining. This is one I think where the show was let down by everything around it – it wasn’t on the right network, it wasn’t marketed right and it was kind of doomed from the start. I think if it had been on the sci-fi channel we’d probably still be watching it, but Grey’s Anatomy in space was gonna be a tough sell.

Warehouse 13 is a truly awful show. The plots are all over the place and the production is often terrible with poor blue screening and budget effects. But it somehow manages to actually pass all three tests and ends up being one of the staple shows in our house just because it’s so entertaining! The characters are likeable, the dialogue snappy, the stories follow on from each other and no one is taking themselves seriously, it’s like some sort of ugly mongrel that you can’t help but love.

When it doesn’t, it’s kind of sad
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse should have worked. It has great characters, an original plot, some fun episodes and a showrunner with a built in fanbase and a lot of success under his belt. But, much as it pains me to say it, I think it failed on the smugness test. It put a lot of emphasis on the long term plot and asked for a lot of trust, which only those of us with an unhealthy obsession with Joss had any faith he could deliver. To everyone else the cocky attitude of “you’re watching something special and you don’t know it yet” was too patronising.

Although I adore Supernatural, I find I have to also put this season into the “kind of sad” category, because it too failed a couple of the rules. It often drifted away from being fun to watch, the endless misery of the apocalypse does get you down after a while. The smugness also occasionally overwhelmed, it took the season a long time to get started, spending way too much time wallowing and mucking about before finally squashing a lot of plot into the final half dozen episodes. It’s a real shame, because I think the first four seasons managed a really good balance of the rules, I have high hopes for season six though.

And there’s no coming back once you’ve lost me
Of course the gaping hole in this review is the assessment of Lost. This year of television will probably be remembered as the year that Lost ended. But I can’t comment on it, because I stopped watching three years ago, when the smugness became too much for me. I don’t know whether it redeemed itself, maybe it really was as good as it purported to be. Maybe one day I’ll go back and watch it all again. Today is not that day though.

* I did a check, although sadly imdb doesn’t seem to list ‘showrunner’ as a job title, despite the fact that it’s referred to in the press a lot, so I looked at ‘creators’ and ‘executive producers’ (and no I don’t really know what they do). Of the shows I have name-checked (and Doctor Who and Fringe which were mentioned and then edited out) in this article there are a total of seventeen people listed as show creators, only one is a woman (Jane Espenson on Warehouse 13). Of the 43 executive producers listed, there are seven women (including Jane Espenson again for Caprica). These are not good percentages people.


5 thoughts on “Three golden rules for science fiction

  1. Great post. Clearly you have less patience than me when it comes to slow-burning series, but I know exactly what you mean. There are too many new shows who clearly looked at season 1 of Lost and equated ‘tangled and complex’ with ‘boring and uneventful’. And in a TV landscape as unforgiving as we now have, once people turn off, that’s it. I’m probably relatively unusual in giving shows a second chance.

    Lost turned it around in its final couple of years, but it already had a large and faithful fanbase to keep it going. FlashForward and V sagged badly after their pilots – interestingly, both turned it around in the final third of their seasons, but it was too late by then.

    I still like Caprica. There is a complex story there which I find genuinely interesting so I can forgive it its slow pace. But I notice Ronald D Moore haspromised more pace and action for the back half of the season, to keep the action addicts happy.

    I thought I was the only person who stuck with Defying Gravity! Despite some pacing problems, I really liked this. The characters were interesting, the various plot strands well thought out, and I really cared about the crew of the Antares. Bloody typical that it got canned!

    Dollhouse was dead before it started. Not so much smugness, but more that it was constantly messed about by the network and then given dreadful slots in the schedule. Season 1 was a bit of a mess, but season 2 – particularly the last five episodes – was some of the best stuff Whedon has ever produced. He clearly had a vision of how he wanted the doomsday future scenario to unfold, but it got compressed into a handful of episodes when he realised it was going to be cancelled. It’s not perfect by any means (the resolutions for Boyd and Alpha are horribly rushed), but I would highly recommend it if only to watch the development of Topher Brink.

    If you haven’t already seen it, here’s a link to my end-of-season genre show review that I did a couple of months back:

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  3. Stargate Universe and Warehouse 13 prove you don’t have to get everything right to make a show work. I think Warehouse 13 would have died if not for the addition of Claudia. The other characters were failing your charisma test until she came onboard. Stargate I loved from the first, despite its flaws. I’ve never been so in love with a show where I really disliked about 50% of the characters. The other 50% are just so wonderful in their flaws that you have to love them.

    As a genre fan, I go into a sci-fi show hoping it will work. Give me a character to latch onto and a scrap of story in each episode and I’ll give the show a season to find its footing. I was so disappointed when Flash Forward failed to do either. I couldn’t seem to care about any of the characters. The producers seemed to forget that sci-fi watchers want to walk into a new world. After the first episode, there was little visually to remind you that you were watching a sci-fi show. Big mistake, I think.

    I’m counting the days until SGU is back and keeping my fingers crossed that V will turn things around. Thanks for the great analysis!

    1. Very well said!

      I agree, it really only takes one character in a show for me to keep watching, if their development is consistent and I can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, I can forgive a lot of mediocrity around the edges. I like the Warehouse 13 characters (particularly Claudia) so forgive the terrible plots and writing. The presence of Eli on Stargate Universe pointing out when people are being dumb or thoughtless somehow makes the rest of the characters seem ok. On a show like FlashForward where no one is saying the things the audience would say, there’s no point of connection and it just becomes frustrating.

      I’m enjoying season 2 of Warehouse 13 and really looking forward to SGU, but you’re on your own with V ;0)

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