Preface/Caveat: It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so this might be nonsense…
Every so often I get excited as a new sci-fi show gets announced and there is the possibility that the genre will be well catered for once again. What normally happens though, is that the show is either a huge disappointment immediately (Flash Gordon(2007), Space Precinct – not even Simone Bendix could save that one), becomes a sucking wound of pish after early promising form (Sliders, Heroes, Lost), drifts along in a ‘nearly state’ of unfulfilled potential (Doctor Who), or gets cancelled after one or two seasons despite being either amazing or growing. (Firefly, Dollhouse, Caprica, Stargate: Universe)
There are exceptions to this, such as the continuing to be great show that is Fringe, or the shows that start shakily and then grow to be powerhouses. (ST: TNG)
Most of the time however, Sci-fi isn’t as well catered for as other genres and the lack of hard Sci-fi is especially notable.
Generally, of the non-standard cop shows and other procedurals, it is the Fantasy shows that survive the TV culling, and somehow they survive in great number, whether they are light or heavy in tone. Some of these are excellent, such as True Blood or Game of Thrones, but others are just execrable (Vampire Diaries).
When it comes to Sci-fi however, the ‘fluffier’, softer variety is what tends to hold onto its place in the schedule and it is from these shows we have to glean our weekly Sci-fi fix…
So with the last year or so seeing shows such as Caprica, No Ordinary Family, Stargate: Universe, FlashForward, Dollhouse, Heroes, Lost, The Event, Defying Gravity and V all cancelled/ended, what actually is there that survives to be watched at the moment?
Falling Skies – A new show, focussing on a group of survivors after an alien invasion, which is actually more about the people, than the Sci-fi environment. That the people are the main focus is quite common in Sci-fi, but it is especially true in this case that the format would work with any invading army, not just an extraterrestrial one. It’s early days, but has a good cast and could well develop nicely; or it could just go up itself… we shall have to see.
Fringe – One of the best shows on TV, regardless of genre, and has more hard Sci-fi elements than most. Quality is kept up throughout and it cannot be recommended enough. Has a serious tone, but doesn’t lack for humour, where appropriate, or even where it is a little subversive. Started out a bit like an X-Files rip off, which concerned at first, but has now eased ahead of the X-Files in my preferences.
Doctor Who – Where to start? I think I ultimately like Doctor Who, but always feel that it could be so much better. I suspect that I watch each week, hoping it will be spectacular and then am sadly let down. Too often the plot and characterisation is weak, with poor denouements and laughable dialogue. One day this will be great! Flashes of brilliance and solid acting keep me coming back, hopeful for a great episode…
Torchwood – Despite being a Doctor Who spin off, it began as a complete disaster, but has now grown in strength to a point where it has a reasonable reputation. Consensus appears to be that Season 3 is the current high point, with the soon to start Season 4, relocated to LA and with US funding, being much stronger. Aimed at an older audience than the core Doctor Who following, it in theory has more potential to develop in some interesting and more challenging directions.
Primeval – Not too bad an effort, all things considered. This has been better than expected, but does suffer from the UK problem of trying to do big adventure stuff with FX and not quite pulling it off like US TV. In addition, the short series length limits character arcs, making it lack depth in each character; a common problem for UK shows. It also suffers from shaky narrative/plot problems like Doctor Who. I gave up with this after Season 2 (? – maybe part way through S3)
Eureka – The feel of this is more like a kids show, but has genuine charm. Good cast with some geek favourites as guests. (Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day). The show quite often spends time doing quite silly ‘science gone wrong’ plots, but is played in such a way as to not be a problem if you just go with the flow; this isn’t hard sci-fi by any stretch!
Sanctuary – At times this has been a bit of a ‘monster of the week’ show, but over the seasons has evolved into something with more of a mythology and more depth. Unsurprisingly, as Amanda Tapping is in it, as well as Exec. Producing, this has a bit of a Stargate feel to it, but this isn’t always a bad thing! Lots of shots are ‘Green Screen’ CGI, mostly for financial reasons, but this doesn’t detract. Core actors are good, but has a tendency to hire massive ‘hams’ for guest roles. (Callum Blue…)
Warehouse 13 – Oozing all the conspiracy theories and science in-jokes you can think of, with a vaguely mystical or steampunk angle, Warehouse 13 is a show that tries to mix ‘big adventure’ with conspiracy and Machiavellian agendas. Mostly, the adventure stuff works, with the conspiracy/big agenda stuff taking a back seat or being a little more ‘clunky’. Quite jokey and sometimes downright silly, this is generally entertaining, with a good chemistry within the ensemble of actors. The new season starts without Joanna Kelly, so we’ll have to see how they carry that off…
So what can we conclude from this list?
It seems that hard Sci-fi is still frowned upon for series TV and that the lighter or more humorous the tone, the better, as far as the networks are concerned. The only way more serious, harder Sci-fi will be made is if the general populace become more welcoming, but this leads us to a problem for the UK audience: scheduling. Quite often, US shows will be shown in the UK long after the US broadcast, and after the decision has been made whether to cancel or renew. Therefore, the audience here is reliant on the US audience to embrace a good show for us. It has been seen before though, that a show can find new life in DVD sales or foreign financing, bringing it back after the US market has rejected it, so the tendency to rely on the reaction of the mainstream US market alone when making decisions could be seen to be flawed in certain genres. Need I mention Firefly? 😉
What’s coming up though? Syfy has a new show about to start called ‘Alphas’, which could be promising and there is the upcoming ‘Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome’.
One final thought… Maybe the future is not on TV at all. Several Web series have been getting plaudits, such as ‘After Judgement’ and are more likely to include harder Sci-fi elements, so are definitely an area to watch…