Thursday, October 28, 2010

Now All Doctor Who Until the End

Syfy has not only canceled Caprica, but has pulled it from its schedule, promising to air the first season's remaining episodes some time in 2011.

Look, it's not as if you couldn't see this coming.  Hell, you could see it coming the moment the idea of a space-adventure-less, soap opera prequel to Battlestar Galactica was bandied about, and Caprica's pilot pretty much confirmed that this was not a show interested in wooing either Galactica's fans or Syfy's traditional viewership (which Syfy is now trying to with the just-announced, and hilariously-titled, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome).  Nor, to be honest, can I find it in my heart to grieve too much for a show that seemed already, in its last few episodes, to be veering towards Galactica's mythology in an all too familiar way.  I liked some things about Caprica, and thought that it had serious problems, and if I ever manage to watch the entire first season I might write about both, but the one aspect of the show that kept me coming back was that it seemed disconnected from Battlestar Galactica, and a lot more thoughtful and interesting about issues--religion and religious fundamentalism, prejudice, terrorism--than Galactica ever was.  In the episodes aired this fall, however, the handling of some of these issues verged on Galactica-esque ham-handedness, and one character was even revealed to be in contact with Six-esque projection.  Which means that even if the second season had happened, I might not have tuned in. 

So what's frustrating to me this morning isn't so much the news of Caprica's death as the fact that that death is just the latest in a long line of flawed-but-interesting science fiction series (with, incidentally, meaty and prominent roles for women)--The Middleman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse--that have been killed off over the last few years, leaving science fiction fans with a pretty barren TV landscape populated mostly by shlocky Spy Fi, feather-light monster of the week series, and third-rate Galactica and Lost imitations.  There's a reason that every single show that I've written positively and at length about in the last year has been a mainstream series--because no one is doing interesting, or even particularly watchable, work in TV science fiction, and though things are slightly better for fantasy (I may not like True Blood but I can respect its accomplishments, and I'm looking forward to HBO's Song of Ice and Fire) and horror (please let The Walking Dead be good), I'm not seeing much hope on the horizon for science fiction.  Right now, the only show that approaches decent science fiction on TV is Doctor Who, and that should be a sad commentary even for people who love it.

23 comments:

Matt Hilliard said...

I feel the same disappointment. I guess the barriers to entry are still a little high in live action TV. It's worth noting that there's some pretty good SF anime, but unfortunately that scene is kind of segregated and for those of us with no particular affection for most of the dominant tropes in anime (for example, giant anthropomorphic robots strike me as almost irredeemably silly) it's hard to find accessible material since the hardcore fans who sift through Japan's vast output generally don't mind them. I guess this is the same problem people who mainly read other genres have with reading SF. Makes me wonder what the giant robots of literary SF are...

Niall said...

I'm still looking forward to Outcasts. But yeah, it's a pretty bleak situation.

Kit said...

You may want to check out the Canadian series Lost Girl. It isn't mind-blowingly intelligent, but it's a fun supernatural crime series in the Buffy tradition, the acting is usually adequate, the two protagonists are female, it's remarkably sex-positive for North American television and so far it's handled bisexuality without any fail. Sadly this is sufficient to qualify it as one of the most feminist shows I've ever seen.

It's a little frustrating for me because I know it's something I wouldn't be watching if the entire SFF genre hadn't degenerated into a) vampires or b) crap. But since the last good offerings in the field were Heroes, Lost and BSG, all of which ended in total disaster, I guess this is what we're left with. Oh, and Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, which I can only assume is going to continue the proud tradition of Spartacus: Blood & Sand.

Raz Greenberg said...

Matt: I admit I haven't had a chance to follow new anime TV shows for a few years now (mostly due to lack of time), though I remember "Heroman", produced in collaboration with Stan Lee, to be slick, fun show (if little else).
Speaking of Stan Lee, American animated TV also gave some nice alternatives to live-action: Wolverine and The X-Men is one show that surpassed any live-action superhero adaptation in the past 10 years or so (in cinema or television). And the recent season of Futurama, while hardly outstanding, was a big improvement over the direct-to-DVD features.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

I guess the barriers to entry are still a little high in live action TV.

Is that the problem? There was a lot of good, smart, well-written genre TV ten and fifteen years ago. True, most of it was pulp, which is no longer fashionable, and I suppose the argument could be made that SF TV is still trying to find a way to successfully move away from pulp, but it still seems as if a lot has been lost.

Kit:

I saw the pilot for Lost Girl. As you say, not very impressive except for the gender and sexuality stuff. Plus, not science fiction - the sense I got from it was that it was trying to ride the popularity of urban fantasy in general, and True Blood in particular.

You're the second person I know to make that joke about Blood & Chrome. I wonder whether Syfy will change the name, or whether they'll decide to cash in on Spartacus's popularity and make a softcore porn version of Galactica.

Raz:

Thanks for the reminder about Futurama, though that ties in to my reply to Matt. Futurama was a late 90s/early 00s show that's gotten a second chance, the same way Firefly and Farscape did. It's not a product of the current television landscape except inasmuch as it reflects fans' lingering affection for ten year old shows.

Kit said...

How is BSG not pulp? I mean, I know it took itself super-seriously, but it didn't have significantly better physics or address significantly deeper political issues than DS9 or Farscape. Or B5, come to think of it, although I'll grant that it had significantly better acting. At the end of the day BSG was just a run-of-the-mill space opera with some good battle scenes and a stupid ending.

Moon or Primer were non-pulp, but BSG?

(Unless you meant Mulder-and-Scully noir pulp rather than SF pulp, but in that case I'd say there's still plenty of that floating around.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't have a go-to definition of pulp - basically it's what I point to and call pulp - but to my mind it involves heroism, adventures, and most importantly, characters who are larger than life and who dominate and control their environment to a meaningful extent. Farscape, DS9, B5, Buffy, and Firefly all qualify, but I don't think BSG does. It had pulpy elements, particularly its space battles (which I happen to think were its best moments), but it consistently shied away from making heroes - in the sense of being influential, not in the moral sense - of its characters. A pulp show, for example, would have introduced Starbuck's "destiny" and then had her take control over it, exercising power in unusual ways. Instead, she spent the series being controlled by others, and by her own borderline personality.

Kit said...

Hm. I think I see what you're saying, but to make pulp vs. non-pulp it just a question of agency seems like it would reclassify a lot of literary fiction as pulp, and virtually all of fantasy. Which might be something interesting to consider, but I don't think it aligns very closely with the generic definition of pulp (whatever that is, but pulp is normally a category that's understood not to include Hamlet).

With respect to BSG specifically, I think it sort of depends on who you consider the protagonist? Because it's true Starbuck got pushed around by others and her limitations and quite often for no good reason by the plot, and so did, say, Sharon and Baltar, but Rosilin and Adama got to exert the sort of plot-warping influence that seems to be your criterion for pulpiness. (That retcon that made Adama responsible for the Cylon attack on Caprica comes to mind).

Plus there's the matter of the Cylons making no sense. If pulpiness is defined by the creation of a world that is transparently a stage on which the characters can run around fighting things and looking badass, then BSG's crappy, incoherent world-building should seat it firmly in this category.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure agency is the right word. The issue isn't the characters themselves but, as you say, the world around them - is it constructed in such a way that their actions have a meaningful influence on it, and can they shape it to suit their intent and desire? Which, yes, would cover a lot of the fantasy genre, and it could be that pulp isn't quite the right word for what I'm describing.

You're right that BSG treated Adama and Roslin as pulpier figures than Starbuck or Baltar, but their roles undercut the show's rah-rah attitude towards them. It was unusual for either one of them to be in a position to charge in and single-handedly save the day (though the show plumped for this on occasion). I think a true pulp story would have handed this kind of influence to a character like Starbuck, since warriors, who can often reduce the problems of the world to single combat, are better suited to a pulpy story.

If pulpiness is defined by the creation of a world that is transparently a stage on which the characters can run around fighting things and looking badass, then BSG's crappy, incoherent world-building should seat it firmly in this category.

Wouldn't it be lovely if writers got it in their heads that mangling your world to accommodate a story that doesn't suit it is a pulpy, and thus disreputable, device? Right now it seems that they find it all too respectable.

Curmudgeon said...

FWIW, I tend to use the BBC newsreader test to define campy/pulpy works. To whit, if you can't see a flagship newsreader being able to read out a major plot point with a straight face, you're dealing with pulp.

"X assumed leadership of the Galactic Empire/Klingon Empire/Minbari Federation today after defeating/killing arch rival Y in an honor duel...."

"The galactic war came to an end today when the enemy stood down after alliance leader Z told them to 'grow up....'"

If you're looking for the giant robots of SF/F, this is one of them: virtually no SF/F passes this test.

Alexander said...

You'd classify the Middleman as flawed-but-interesting? I'd have thought it merited stronger classification than that.

And True Blood a lot weaker, unless recent seasons have been much better in quality than the first season. IMHO, it was pretty atrocious, in writing as well as in a lot of acting by the regulars.

Matt Hilliard said...

I've argued this point before, maybe even in comments here, but basically I think that people underrate special effects as an obstacle. Big budget sci-fi movies have taught people to expect a certain quality. This is within reach, as BSG proved, but only just barely, which eats into profit margins. I think to a network executive, a genre show is distinguished by (a) having more expensive effects than any other type of show and (b) a lower audience ceiling. For all the problems people like us might have had with some its choices, BSG was as successful critically as any genre show in history, yet it never managed more than a cult following. Since the TV development process guarantees plenty of failures, you need big time successes to balance it out. A genre show, in this line of thinking, will never become a cash cow like House, ER, etc. so it's hard to pay for the failed attempts it takes to get there.

BTW I'm not really including Lost or Fringe in this particular definition of genre even though I ordinarily would because I didn't get the impression you were. Although I'd add that TV executives' efforts to clone Lost have failed even more brutally than their usual development efforts.

gareth-wilson said...

I've heard that Caprica started as a completely independent TV pilot script. Nothing to do with BSG, perhaps even set on near-future Earth. Then SyFy modified it to be a BSG prequel. This seems like a bad decision to me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alexander:

I was trying to come up with a description that would fit all three of the unfairly-cancelled science fiction shows I listed, and so ended up underselling The Middleman (and overselling Dollhouse). That said, much as I liked The Middleman, it didn't aspire to the complexity of something like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and often seemed more interested in referencing science fiction than in telling science fiction stories. These aren't flaws, per se - the show was doing what it wanted to do, and it's clearly the most successful of the three - but they could certainly be considered negative attributes by some.

Matt:

It's worth noting that a lot of new science fiction series are set in the present, and feature almost no special effects. Possibly this is for budget reasons, and possibly because there's a mentality that a present-day, familiar setting makes a show more relevant and thus more artistically worthwhile (it might also court viewers who are put off by fantastic settings).

I would certainly count Lost and Fringe as science fiction series. The latter may be the only SF show currently running that doesn't fit into my description of current SF TV as made up of "shlocky Spy Fi, feather-light monster of the week series, and third-rate Galactica and Lost imitations," but I forgot about it because, well, I just tend to do so. People who love it love it passionately, but every time I've tried to figure out what the big deal is I've just found it boring and poorly served by its lead actress.

Omer said...

I'm wondering whether we're in a time of relatively low quality TV, especially action/advanture TV, which SF is usually a subsection of; Around 2006, I recall a host of really exciting TV shows: 24, Prisonbreak, Lost, House, the first season of Heroes, the Wire, etc. Now all these shows are either gone, degenerated into self parody, or both. The sole exception is House, which is still what it was originally.

I haven't seen any new show that matches that kind of quality; One of the earliest pieces I read in this blog was about the end of a Golden age of TV. Maybe that's what it looks like.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't know. I think there's a lot of great TV right now: The Good Wife, Justified, Treme, Terriers, Community, Dexter. It's just that none of these shows are science fiction.

There is a lifecycle for any TV show, even the best, and the exceptional shows of five years ago (though I have to say that most of the shows you mention are not on that list, as far as I'm concerned), if they've survived, will have degenerated by now. In general I don't see that television has gotten significantly worse since in the last decade, but genre TV, and science fiction TV in particular, has definitely degenerated.

communicator said...

Is The Event any good? Or an example of sub-Lost schlock? I'm just typing this having watched five minutes of one episode.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Oh, definitely the latter, though 24 is closer to the tone the show is trying to strike. Still, I'm finding it oddly watchable. I think it's striking that sweet spot that Heroes did in its first season, of moving fast enough and throwing enough ridiculous plot twists at the screen that you don't care that it really isn't very good. Which is not to say that the show is anywhere as good as Heroes was in its first season.

Alexander said...

The depressing thing about current trends is that most of the new genre shows seem to be mimicking past shows that ended up misusing their premise so thoroughly. Heroes well to hell very rapidly after the first season, yet No Ordinary Family, and to an extent the Event seem to have little reach beyond appealing to their success. It doesn't even seem like a case of writer failure, so much as a culture of executive decisions going on at present. As is, I share the mood of the post, and would say that current non-Who genre television that I've seen I'm either indifferent to (Fringe, The Event) or actively hoping will be canceled (Stargate Universe, V, No Ordinary Family especially).

Let's all get used to the idea of Dr. Who taking all five spots on Hugo Dramatic Form shortlist next year, among other things. After all it took three out of five last year, in a historically weak run of episodes against much stronger competition.
Well, I guess we can hold out hope for Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead, at least for a little bit.

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

What about Haven and Eureka and Lie to Me? (though I suspect far too many people don't watch that last one as SF.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Haven: is surely horror, not SF, and also really, really bad.
Eureka: is pretty much the show I was thinking about when I mentioned "feather-light monster of the week series," though I've seen some episodes of season 4 that were slightly more substantial.
Lie to Me: I'm afraid I'm one of those people who don't see it as SF. From what I've seen it's a passable procedural but nothing to get excited over.

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

Haven is as much spec. fic. as The Middle Man surely. Not as good, but I'm curious as to why you found it "really, really bad." The dialogue is sharp, characterization has some depth (with the likelihood of deepening next season,) and storytelling is unusually good for a "monster of the week" series.

For example: A recent episode featured one recurring character pulling out all the stops to excoriate and pillory a main character who (presumably) had been a favorite: trusted, reliable, etc. One sees this sort of thing in every heirarchical proceedural: it's so bizarre. Surely real people take long-time past peformance into account? It played out the way the cop- or junior-officer scenario usually does on T.V. Then, in the final scene, you discover it was all a put-up; an act, by the recurring character who went ballistic. The show does this often enough playing out some obvius T.V. trope, then going for some twist that either makes it new or makes it work in order to expand the longer story arc--to make me look forward to watching it.

Eureka's (which certainly began as "feather light monster of the week") entire reboot season has been pretty interesting spec fic that relies on solid worldbuilding and characters who are unusually 3-D for T.V. Not Orwell or Cordwainer Smith, but solid Asimov, if you will.

Now that I've written the above, it makes me wonder if you're wanting more from a medium: weekly television, than the medium can be reasonably expected to give... Spec fic especially has to dance the line between world-building and the requirements of episodic fiction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Haven is speculative fiction, but it's not science fiction, which is what I'm after in this post. And I'm afraid I have to disagree about its merits: the dialogue is stilted, the acting is hilariously wooden, and the plots are formulaic, paper-thin, and usually nonsensical. Plus, an unfortunate tendency to either infantilize or demonize women.

I don't think I'm asking too much from the medium, but it's possible that I'm asking too much from the business model. I was getting what I wanted from shows like The Middleman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but they got canceled while dreck like Heroes trudged on for four seasons and the Stargate franchise spawned increasingly weak spin-offs.

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