Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Changing Face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Series

This blog was originally written for and posted on Steve Lockley's page when I made a guest appearance but I thought I'd also share it on here.

Hope you enjoy it.

The Changing Face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Series

Science Fiction and Fantasy Series’ have been popular for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a huge fan of science fiction on television since I first began watching Star Trek in the mid-seventies. This was rapidly followed by shows like Blake’s 7, The Tomorrow People and The Prisoner. In latter years, through the power of DVD, I have discovered classic Doctor Who and also Lost In Space. Revisiting these old series’ I became aware of the dramatic change of pace and plot lines over the years. The humble ‘television series’ has evolved, becoming something far different from its predecessors and in order to illustrate this I’ve chosen a few old and new series’ to briefly discuss the changing face of Science Fiction and Fantasy on television and its evolution into the mode of ‘serial’.
            I’ve never really thought of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Star Trek. The original series had some great characters and the stories and special effects, sets and formula still hold up today. I think this is because Star Trek is easy viewing. You don’t need to have followed the entire series to enjoy watching any single episode and because the characters don’t carry emotional baggage from one story to another, the series can be viewed in any order. Each episode is an individual adventure. They are fun, the characters’ relationships are established by their behaviour to each other (we are ‘shown’ what they are like in every episode) and the best bit of all – there is very little angst. I have to marvel at how good the set and effects were for the day. With the exception of the very sixties hairdos it still stands the test of time. They did a lot with very little without the technology of CGI and it has been more than rumoured that some of the gadgets featured in the show have been the inspiration for the technology that we take for granted today.
I spent many years enjoying Next Generation, even though I feel it’s a different series entirely. Next Generation worked well for me because it introduced some new and interesting characters and the writing was generally good. It makes great use of CGI in many ways, but still had excellent sets, and the holo-deck was a marvellous invention that lends itself to some of the more interesting stories. This series mostly kept to the formula of one story per episode, and with the exception of some blossoming love relationships, it rarely lost its way by becoming subservient to its own history. Even so, is this series as accessible as the original series? I’m not so sure. And that might be because of the ever changing cast, a rare occurrence in Star Trek, and their equally evolving roles on board the Enterprise. Unlike Next Generation, Star Trek’s cast had a specific role and personalities which were maintained throughout the series.
The stories in Next Generation are far more complex than in Star Trek, perhaps to suit the modern audience, but this does again necessitate a regular audience who are following the series from start to finish. I recently watched one episode out of context and found the characterisation of Natasha Yar (Chief of Security aboard the Enterprise) hard to fathom. This seemingly tough character was kidnapped by a chieftain and admits to being ‘flattered’ by his interest in her. The character, I believe, would have killed him the first chance she got. Her actions in this situation weren’t believable. In Star Trek, however, we knew how all of the characters would behave in any given situation. Spock will always be logical, Kirk honourable, Bones, a caring doctor, will always try to get a rise out of Spock and the characters maintain these roles. They are always consistent. Ergo – Believable. This is perhaps a quality that has been sacrificed in some present day shows. The characters change to suit the story, not to react in the way that you would expect from your burgeoning knowledge of them.
            Buffy the Vampire Slayer started life as a sequence of one-off episodes, and presented a set of fairly consistent characters that naturally evolved throughout the series. Each week there was a new demon, vampire or werewolf to slay and Buffy would literarily kick ass. We had humour that softened the impact of the violence, but by about season three you can begin to discern a change in the way the season’s storylines developed. A whole season became focused on one climactic event and within the stories that led to this conclusion we had the torturous anguish of the characters as they argued, loved, hated and ultimately worried their way through whatever incidental events made up the individual episode. Often regurgitating issues carried over from previous episodes, sometimes even from previous seasons. The angst was ramped up to exaggerated proportions.
Perhaps this was the start of the phenomena that has since swept American tele-fantasy? In some ways it is almost as though soap opera was brought to the genre and the two mingled and became indistinguishable except for the bizarre monsters and creatures that would inhabit a science fiction, fantasy or horror series. Buffy was able to get away with much more than the average series because it initially didn’t take itself too seriously. The humour lightened the mood – until season seven, which was by far the darkest. By then, however, the show lacked focus, starting with one ongoing storyline and ending with a completely different one. It also relied heavily on the viewer’s prior knowledge of the characters: thus alienating anyone who wanted to ‘try’ just one episode. A series these days, it seems, requires the viewer to buy into the whole season and not just one episode at a time; needing the audience to be dedicated to the ongoing story over and above whatever an individual episode might present. And more often than not, individual episodes contained nothing stand-alone, being just a small part of the whole season arc.
This is when a ‘series’ becomes a ‘serial’. The characters evolved and mostly they were believable – if you’d watched the whole series and understood their motivations that is. But if you hadn’t then some of their actions may seem a little unrealistic.
            Recently I watched the entire run of the new Battlestar Galactica, which ran for five seasons. I remember the original series well, and was expecting some rollicking adventures through space, though maybe a bit more high tech. However I couldn’t recognise this series as a descendent of the original Battlestar Galactica. There were a few similarities in the use of names of characters, but the characterisations were completely different from the original. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, but it is something of a cheat – and I felt the same about Next Generation. The fact is, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica were hugely successful shows in their day and, with the modern preference for regurgitation rather than originality, their names were tagged onto something that had similarities but which were in fact entirely different stories, or as in Next Generation, a spin-off. Again, this wasn’t a bad thing. The series’ themselves were executed for the most part with fantastic efficiency. However there were flaws. There was an attempt to make the new series of Battlestar Galactica follow the old format, with individual stories, weaved into the overall story arc. Relationships were complex – and sometimes characters were not believable. For example the steady and strong commander suddenly, in the final season, turned into a drunk and had tantrums where he would throw paint around and smash glasses. Adama’s son, Apollo, betrayed his father, went against orders and at one time, piled on excessive weight because he was depressed. The most convincing character was that of Gaius Baltar, who was contradictory from the start and so anything he did seemed appropriate. It could be the curse of multiple writers somehow missing the point that caused some of these inconsistencies to occur. I watched the whole series and didn’t feel that there really was any reason why some of the characters acted in such a way that was ‘out of character’. The show was also steeped in religious and philosophical references – which I felt they managed to hold together effectively until the end, but the angst grew tiresome at times and the show appeared to be far more a soap opera than an adventure series at times.
            Perhaps this is the curse of a long running series, that in order to maintain its audience, there is perceived to be a need to increase the angst and to decrease the standalone episodes. Battlestar Galactica did try to maintain the ‘one-story per episode’ theme but in later seasons this actually was to the detriment of the series. Often you saw one story end at a point where you wanted to know more, but the next episode had no bearing on the previous one and made no reference to it. The previous plot was therefore left hanging for an episode or more.
            Supernatural is another long running series that has evolved. It worked better for me when the stories were individual adventures – even though there was a back story about the death of Sam and Dean’s mother and its connection to the death of Sam’s girlfriend via a yellow-eyed demon. I wanted to watch a programme that I could enjoy in any order like the original Star Trek. You didn’t really miss anything major if you skipped an episode here and there and watching was always fun. Around season three – you sense a theme developing here – the series became too self-aware and as a result it became less enjoyable to watch. It relied too much on events that had happened previously and the interplay and angst of the main characters rather than focusing on a current storyline. From season three onwards I would say that it would be difficult for a new audience to understand any of the previous references that were made.
            Doctor Who does this too sometimes. It’s been said that the series was better when the stories were done on a weekly basis. But there has always been a variety of lengths of story, some were two episodes long, others eight – I think of them as more mini-series (even though technically they were one story told in half an hour slots). In recent years with the revival of the series by Russell T Davies, Doctor Who changed dramatically (mostly for the better). We had a surge of one-off adventures that would maybe stretch to two parts but no longer. The new audience could access the series easily and although there was a foregone conclusion that the Doctor had lived a long life there was very little ‘telling’ of this past. We just accepted that he and other characters knew about the Daleks, or the Cybermen. The reinvented series was given a loose back story, a warning of ‘Bad Wolf’ that gave this often fun romp through time and space an ominous quality that was brought together at the end of the season. Unfortunately though, this idea that a season has to have an arc, has resulted in more and more backstory becoming the fore-story. In the last two seasons, beginning with ‘Amy’s crack’ – initially used as a way to introduce a new character – then continuing with (and I’m not sure about this actually as I found the first half of the current season incredibly confusing) the ‘Doctor’s death’ being a focus of this current season. Every other story in the season so far has made some reference to this event, and tentatively hangs around it. But why does there need to be an arc at all? Why can’t all the adventures be stand-alone without them all joining up in some wider jigsaw puzzle which only the truly dedicated will appreciate? My favourite episodes have been the standalones – Blink is the obvious one to come to mind. For all that, Doctor Who has changed for the better in many ways. The stories are more grown up (sometimes a bit too much so), have more complex plots, and have even greater, scarier monsters.
            Science fiction and fantasy on television continues to evolve. This ever-changing formula is reactive. The writers, producers and networks are all looking for the next big thing, even when they hang it onto a previously successful series and call it by the same name. It doesn’t make it the same series and in fact it is often something similar or a spin-off. It still feels to me that there is too much angst used to hook the viewer, when I’d prefer more adventure, but I think this is deliberately aimed at gathering long-term audiences that will watch the series to the bitter end if they engage enough with the characters. Perhaps this is akin to the way that people relate to soap characters, and is introduced for the same reasons. This also tends to mean that the characters can be warped to suit the mood of audience, or the plot, unlike the series of old which gave you consistency of a character’s personality, and adversity only brought out those traits, rather than resulting in them behaving in a way that is alien to the character you’ve grown to understand. The old ways aren’t necessarily the best, but sometimes I feel we’re in danger of forgetting what drew us to the series in the first place: stand alone stories.

Sam x

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