Wednesday, August 24, 2005

TV: Where'd All This Science Fiction Come From? (And How Long Will it Last?)

Three new science-fiction television series have been proposed for the fall 2005 season on the "big-three" networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). In the past, I would've regarded this as cause for optimism, a sign that science fiction at last might be becoming more mainstream and less a genre that critics and reviewers only mention so they'll have something to ridicule on a regular basis. These days, I've learned to be more cynical, so much so that I'll predict here and now that at least two of these series won't survive to mid-season. If any of them makes it into a second season, I'll be stunned.

Frankly, when it comes to science fiction, the big-three networks' records are just plain piss-poor, dating back to the infamous cancellation of Star Trek after three seasons back in the '60s (about which some lifelong fans remain justifiably bitter). And that was a longer run than most SF series have had on the mainstream networks. For the most part, genre shows on ABC, CBS and NBC have been yanked off the air after only a few episodes. Remember Wolf Lake? I thought not--it went a handful of episodes a few years ago before it was unceremoniously dumped just as it was starting to get interesting.

The newer broadcast networks, FOX, UPN and the WB, have sometimes done a little better by their genre shows, mainly because they're still small enough to content themselves with a niche audience. These networks often have been willing to be patient and let a good SF show find its audience. In fact, they were so willing to be patient that the most successful of such shows--The X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager, Smallville--actually managed to stay on the air until after they had ceased to be interesting. Long after, in some cases.

FOX, however, apparently has become successful enough to adopt the big three philosophy of canning SF at the first sign that it might need some time, and sometimes the network has been simply brutal. Chris Carter's Harsh Realm got the harsh treatment after only a few episodes; FOX execs did everything in their power to destroy Joss Whedon's wonderful Firefly even before it ever saw air by insisting on broadcasting it out of sequence. The network had the audacity to renew Tru Calling, cancel it over the summer, and then promote the broadcast of a handful of unaired episodes as if it were a new season and drop the ax again in the middle of a cliffhanger. FOX isn't proposing any new science fiction this season, and if it were, I would be hesitant to watch it for fear I'd have to witness its horrible, early death.

UPN hasn't done much better, but the truth is, most of the science fiction UPN has aired didn't really deserve to live. The network doesn't appear to have either the will or the finances to do it right, even with its cash-cow Star Trek franchise. (I wanted to like Enterprise, really I did. But it was impossible to like.) And these days, with the network aiming at a young, female audience, and apparently convinced that there's no such thing as a female science-fiction fan, it's not very likely they'll try again soon. (There's nothing wrong with Veronica Mars, but it's hardly a substitute for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yeah, I know, some people are calling it "the new Buffy," but I think that's just because there's nothing else out there for a young, female demographic that even approaches Buffy's quality.) In some ways, it's just as well UPN doesn't try again, when you think back on earlier forays like Special Unit 2 or, God help us, Mercy Point.

The WB, frankly, hasn't done much that really can be called science fiction at all. Truth is, Buffy, Angel and Smallville lean more toward horror and/or fantasy than science fiction. The three genres tend to get lumped together because they often share the same audience, or at least parts of it. The WB has treated its shows better, with the exception of the ill-fatedBirds of Prey--I guess the network was hoping the lightning that sparked Smallville to success would strike twice--but that may be in part because they've risked so much less in the first place.

When you get right down to it, even the Sci Fi Channel has done a lot more horror and fantasy than science fiction in its original programming. (Some notable exceptions: Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, First Wave, and Stargate: Atlantis. I'm not counting Stargate: SG-1 because it had already become established on Showtime before moving to Sci Fi.) And if SF shows can't get respect from the Sci Fi Channel, what hope do they have elsewhere?

So, am I going to watch Threshold on CBS, Invasion on ABC and/or Surface on NBC? Probably. But my expectations, especially with respect to their longevity, are quite low. For one thing, they all seem to be treading such similar ground, concept-wise, that they're going to be competing head to head with each other as much as with other shows in the same timeslots. I like a good alien-invasion plot as much as the next SF fan, but how much of it do you really want all in the same week?

I don't know or care anything about what went on behind the scenes, but these shows strike me as being rushed into production on the off-chance that they can capitalize on the momentum created by successes like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Dead Zone and The 4400. What the network execs have failed to remember is that these successful series created their own momentum, rather than trying to siphon it off something else. Surface strikes me as particularly unlikely to make it long-term, if for no other reason than that its title has been changed at least once already--not a sign of stability at the top. (It's being produced by the people who brought us G. vs. E., not exactly the epitome of success.) All that underwater filming can't be cheap, which makes it a cost target.

What's that you say? I haven't even mentioned the retooling of The Night Stalker? Well, one of the good things about not reviewing things for money anymore is that I never have to watch anything I don't want to watch. I didn't like the first one, and I couldn't care less about the second incarnation, especially since it's being produced by Frank Spotnitz, who I blame for the painful and embarrassing descent into incoherence of The X Files in its final seasons. How Spotnitz got another job in television is much more a mystery than anything likely to air on The Night Stalker.

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