MIND MELD: Your Ideal Science Fiction Television Show
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
The world of science fiction on TV will get that much smaller once STARGATE UNIVERSE ends its run in the coming the months. With shows like V and FRINGE seemingly on the bubble for more seasons, it may get even worse in the near future.
Here’s what they said…
Now that CGI and other techniques have become more affordable, television shows have the opportunity to be more adventurous than ever before in their use of special effects and exotic locales. The recent reincarnations of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who have shown that ideas which were once the preserve of highly financed Hollywood films are now within reach of more modest production budgets. In addition, programmes such as Lost, The Sopranos, The Wire and 24 have demonstrated that there is an audience for intelligent drama with a long-term plot arc.
Despite the lukewarm reception received by the BBC’s recent remake of Day of the Triffids, I’d like to see British television tackling further adaptations of science fiction novels; but concentrating on new and contemporary writers instead of harking back to the classics of the 1950s and 1960s. Even the Beeb’s recent sci-fi outing Outcasts - which chronicled the struggles of colonists on an alien world – could have been written at any time in the past fifty years.
I’d like to see adaptations of the books which are helping to shape the genre today – books such as Ian McDonald’s Brasyl; The City and The City by China Mieville; Accelerando by Charles Stross; and Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s 9Tail Fox.
In my opinion, a 13 episode run is far better suited to a novel-length adaptation than a 90 minute movie; and if Hollywood insists on churning out alien invasion shoot-em-ups and action movies based on Philip K. Dick short stories, it is left to television to pick up the slack. But in order to do it properly, new serials need the thought and quality of writing that went into The Wire and The Sopranos. Recent disappointing offerings from the USA, such as The Event, Heroes and Flash Forward, have shown that you need more than a strong initial concept to sustain a programme beyond the opening episode.
Britain has a proud history of groundbreaking genre television, from The Quatermass Experiment and Doctor Who to Edge of Darkness and Life on Mars; and I would dearly like to see this tradition upheld and carried forward, and its subject matter broadened to include work by some of our leading authors.
I’m probably the wrong person to ask this question, for two reasons. The first is that I’m finding it hard to lament the cancellation of shows like V and Stargate: Universe. The latter, in particular, strikes me as one of those rare occasions where the gods of television have acted justly and correctly. Not only was the show itself terrible – a pale imitation of Battlestar Galactica that failed to muster even the limited reserves of courage and conviction possessed by that flawed series – but its creators’ dismissive, disrespectful treatment of their fanbase and the franchise they’d created more than earned them a swift cancellation (and I say this as someone who thought the first two Stargate series were trite diversions long past their prime at the time of their cancellation). I’d rather have no science fiction at all on my television screen than have Stargate: Universe as the sole representative of space-set SF TV.
The second reason that I’m the wrong person to ask this question is that my tastes are entirely out of step with current fashions in SF TV. My favorite science fiction shows are 90s series - Farscape, Deep Space Nine, Futurama. Sure, I love Firefly as much as the next person, but it was barely a blip on our screens while these shows built whole universes and spun elaborate plot arcs over the course of several seasons. The things that I liked about these shows are the things that we’ve been taught, in the last decade, to revile and look down on. I liked that Farscape was loud and multicolored and cheesy (though at the same time smarter and more mature than a lot of so-called ‘realistic’ SF), but nowadays we “know” that worthy SF has to be mimetic and sombre in its tone. I liked that Deep Space Nine grounded its political stories in its invented universe, mixing and matching from a dozen different real-world references and a bit of SFnal invention to create a scenario that was organic to the show’s setting, but nowadays we “know” that to be relevant, science fiction needs to be a thin allegory of the now, full of unmistakable references to 9/11 and the two T’s, torture and terrorism. I liked that Futurama was funny and self-referential, and though that show’s revival in 2010 is a heartening sign, no one else seems terribly interested in its brand of razor-sharp comedy.
Which is not to say that there hasn’t been science fiction TV I’ve liked in the last few years, or that the shift towards present-set, naturalistic shows hasn’t produced some interesting results. It’s just that the shows I’ve liked – Caprica, with its elaborate worldbuilding; The Sarah Connor Chronicles, with its meditative approach to questions of machine intelligence and morality; The Middleman, with its zaniness and fantastic female lead; Dollhouse, with its many, many problems and intriguing core concept – have all failed to find an audience, or a supportive network, and one after another, they were cancelled.
It’s my personal theory that the surge of excellent SF television in the 90s and early 00s can be summed up as a very long, multifaceted response and escape from a dominant and constricting paradigm. Or, to put it another way, everyone was reacting to, and against, Star Trek (even Deep Space Nine can be taken as an attempt to move away from The Next Generation‘s conventions). But there’s only so long that a field can spend reacting against a paradigm before it loses its crippling hold – with Star Trek off our television screens for more than half a decade, and now trying desperately to mimic what the young, cool kids are doing, is there any point in rebelling against it? Battlestar Galactica was surely the apex of anti-Star Trek sentiment, and for all my dislike of that show I can’t deny that it has set itself up as the new paradigm. The problem is that as a work of science fiction, Galactica is a hell of a lot thinner, and has a hell of a lot less substance, than Star Trek. There’s less for new shows to respond to, complicate, or make their own. The result has been shows like V and Stargate: Universe.
So though I could give a list of things I’d like to see in a science fiction series – a space setting, good worldbuilding, well-written, adult female characters (and male characters, for that matter), a willingness to be silly, funny, and ridiculous – those are old standards, and for the most part what I expect from my favorite television series in all genres. What I think the field needs more than anything right now is that new paradigm. That blueprint for how SF TV should look that young writers can work within and try to break out of, and that fans can latch onto. I don’t know what that is, but I hope that some enterprising auteur is working on it right now and that a brave network or cable channel is willing to give them the chance to create it. More than another Stargate series, or another season of Fringe, or another remake of a seventies series, what the genre needs is that new thing.
I’m going to assume the wide definition of sf that includes all forms of the fantastic/speculative, cause frankly if we’re talking straight science fiction, I want Stargate Universe back, damn it, plain and simple. Unlikeable characters, lack of a big threat, those half dozen episodes at the start where they’re just dealing with the shit of being stuck on an alien spaceship — all of that is exactly what made it great for me. Needing light, air, food. Going through nicotine and caffeine withdrawal. That’s story coming out of the situation rather than some Alien Plot Device. And if Young’s a weak commander, all the better; Mutiny on the Bounty, anyone? A narrative like that would make a real change from Captain Competent dealing with the problem of the episode/arc, slugging back his/her [insert characteristic beverage here,] and ordering his/her gallant team onwards. As far as pure-bred science fiction goes, Stargate Universe was doing exactly the sort of thing I want to see.
Otherwise… OK, here’s the series I’d be showrunner for if anyone was crazy enough to let me: Hellhound, I call it. Think The Littlest Hobo meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Think Supernatural meets Highway to Heaven, only nobody told Michael Landon they’d finished shooting I Was a Teenage Werewolf — no, scratch that, they didn’t get Michael Landon for either role at all; they got Vincent Gallo and gave him all of Charlie Sheen’s drugs.
It’s a show about a werewolf and his handler, traveling the country, infiltrating high schools disguised as students in order to squish “ticks,” as they call them — vamps of the good old-fashioned cattle-leeching ghoul variety, mindless parasites that have crawled out of the grave, dressed themselves in the skins of human victims, and latched onto some hapless fool — a “Mary Sue” in the series mythos — who acts as a glamour amp for this fetid corpse that feeds on misery. They’re so besotted with the idea of being the centre of the universe to some brooding Byronic anithero, see, these Mary Sues radiate a delusion that sucks in everyone around them.
So, only a werewolf, with his lupine olfactory abilities, can smell the stench through the mass psychosis, break the spell, see that furrow-browed mopester as a rotting carcass to be grabbed by the throat and shaken like a ragdoll till it comes apart. That’d be the pilot anyway, that high school scenario. Lawyers, priests, politicians and TV pundits, sales & marketing teams, ex-gay ministries, wherever you might find soul-sucking users and the schmucks that buy their bullshit, our heroes would have to hunt down ticks and save their saps.
There’d be run-ins with the law, of course, (“You do not eat state troopers! Bad boy!”) a handler recruiting agency with a base known as the Pound, where our heroes first met and bonded instantly (“Stop sniffing that, now,”) and the all-important first season arc where they’re trying to track down the tick that [spoiler] the handler by [spoiler] his [spoiler]. All the necessary ingredients.
Mostly it would be about the gonzo though. It’d all be old school mythos, our wolfman slugging back a hipflask of dirtwater collected from a wolf’s pawprint to shift on will. So we’re talking the werewolf as a latter-day shaman who mimics in order to morph. Like, back in human form, drenched in blood, spitting a tick’s heart into his handler’s lap and saying, “Throw it for me! Go on! Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!” Keeping a vampire femur as a chew toy. Having zero impulse control when it comes to consumables. (Food, drink, drugs, socks.) Opening shot would be an alarm going off, our wolfman in human form curled up at the foot of the bed, clambering up to lick his handler’s face and shout, “Get up get up get up get up get up! I’m hungry!”
Also, screw the slash fiction; the heroes would be homos from the get-go. It doesn’t have to be HBO-level raunch, but I’m bored already with the queer subtexts of monsters and mutants; I want some text. And let’s face it, that relationship is going to be pretty much unconditional love anyway, and with zero inhibitions on the werewolf side: “I love you even more than rolling in entrails! Rotting entrails of disemboweled vampires even!”
The theme tune? “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges, of course. Gotta be.
To my way of looking at it any science fiction show has the potential to be my perfect SciFi TV show as long as it had certain elements. If a studio came to me and said “James, you are an unknown to us but for reasons we can’t readily explain we are giving you a blank check, and carte blanche to create any science fiction series you wish. No matter what you come up with, we will guarantee you at least one season and a sweet time slot.” I would do two things. The first is that I would begin wringing my hands maniacally while emitting a chuckle that grew deeper as my breath expired. The second is that I would squirrel myself away and not step back out into the light until I had my dream series in hand. I can’t say for sure exactly what it would be about because I would really have to think about that, but these are the characteristics it would most likely have:
It would be hard science-fiction:
Just a preference. I don’t mind if there are some ‘fuzzy’ aspects (I used psi-powers in the Revivors series) but in general I’m not a huge fan of steampunk or anything that takes place on other worlds where humans (or aliens) live in a society that is based on the past. The world I settled on might be dystopian, utopian or anything in between but it would look into the future at least a little bit. The science and technology of the world would be mapped out ahead of time then adhered to, and it would impact everyone who lived in that world in a meaningful way.
It would be Earth-based:
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed space-based science fiction for about as long as I can remember and I like it a lot. I grew up on Star Wars and more recently I really enjoyed Farscape, Firefly and others, but I’d like to see a really well done Earth-based future as the setting for my dream series mainly because I think that’s what it will most likely turn out to actually be. I also find social dynamics really interesting and so I wouldn’t want to be tied to a microcosm. The Galactica reboot managed to combine both pretty well I thought, but my dream series would take place in the slums and the heights of Earth.
Its leads would be regular people in extraordinary circumstances:
It’s tempting to make your lead a starship captain, or a super soldier, or a spy or a warrior…they’re tried and true and there’s fertile ground there, but I’d like to see a more down to earth cast. In my novels my primary lead is an FBI agent (so I’m guilty of it as well), but I felt like a lot of the heart and soul of the series came from the characters who were just trying to scrape by. It’s one of the things I liked about Firefly…true Mal was a ship captain, but they were all working class people trying to get by. Jayne was one of my favorite characters largely because he felt so real – he didn’t have super strength or know martial arts, he just had a hard head. He wasn’t very bright and while he knew how to take action, he wasn’t always sure what to do. One of the appeals of outbreak and zombie stories for me is that the cast and crew tend to be regular Joes…I like the idea of the guy who worked at Denny’s, before he rose to the occasion.
It would have a defined beginning, middle and end:
I understand why a lot of series don’t have this, but this is my dream scenario and in my dream scenario I am given full license to write the entire series beginning to end before casting ever even begins. I totally get why it happens but I don’t like when science fiction shows (or any shows for that matter) start to wander. Once it starts it seems like it doesn’t stop until the ideas totally run out and the series dies an ignoble death. A good example of doing this right is the first season of Heroes - love it or hate it, the first season knew what it was about, and where it was heading the entire time and ended with a satisfactory bang that resolved everything that needed resolving. Every season that followed was the counterpoint to this.
It would run a set number of seasons (or be a mini-series):
This kind of goes with the previous point. When you don’t know where you’re going with a story, it shows. It might be subtle, or it might be obvious but it shows. It’s tempting to want something good to go on and on…there never seems to be enough good science fiction on TV and when you get some you don’t want to let it go, but I think fans would be equally receptive to a constant influx of fresh material even if it came in smaller packages. I’d rather see three seasons of a show that floored me than eight where I watched it run out of steam for the last two, maybe even becoming embarrassing before finally conking out.
Beyond that, I can think of three things offhand that it would *not* have…
It would not be a remake or reboot:
I enjoyed Galactica a lot (up until the end) but I couldn’t get into V and honestly I’ve had it with remakes of any kind. There are tons of fresh ideas out there that never see the light of day. In my opinion we don’t need another Star Trek, Stargate or Star Wars spinoff, or any other revamp of something that was on TV when I was a kid.
It wouldn’t have any race or faction whose members embody a stereotype:
A pet peeve – I can forgive Star Trek because its roots are old, but I hate that idea that ‘everyone from the planet Krelnac is greedy’ and ‘everyone from Melnar is warlike’…the only time it’s ever worked for me was Futurama‘s Omicron Persei 8, and that was because they were spoofing it.
It wouldn’t have young pretty people shoehorned in:
There’s nothing wrong with being young, pretty, or people – I just mean no twenty-year old models who are also somehow scientists, Das, soldiers or engineers. I hang around with real engineers every day. Represent!
My ideal sci fi television show would have a female protagonist, and not as an after thought. It would most definitely be set on another planet, and the existence of this sci fi show? Would not have to be justified by making it “Aliens investigate mysteries” or through the addition of a more market-worthy genre to the premise. Furthermore, it would have the guts to fulfill on the theories and tantalizing weirdness certain shows intimate initially but shirk from once the reveals hit. Also, the god(s) most definitely did not do it. Anyways, I am interested in participating in this Mind Meld, even though my interest in science fiction television is waning as it continues to disappoint. This has become only the more relevant as I actually started reading fantasy novels in November because I was interested in the television series Game of Thrones–is there any currently airing science fiction show that is “genre” enough or would be considered noteworthy from an ideas/speculative fiction/etc perspective that someone would then pursue reading more books in the field? (And are these shows successful? Should we even try to cultivate them? Flashforward had the basis of a book and tanked.)
Here’s me talking about some shows: http://vocaroo.com/?media=vhffyEm7HeHsIw89O
This could be one of my favorite questions ever, because oh, how I wish it was real. (Well, for about a minute and a half–and then I realize running a television studio would probably fall into the Harsh Reality category. But what a fun dream, nonetheless.) My favorite TV shows of all kinds tend to be idiosyncratic in their creators’ visions and most have a strongly-identifiable creator behind them–Veronica Mars (not SF, but the lines blurred occasionally), Buffy, Firefly, Fringe, Wonderfalls, all come immediately to mind. So what I’d like to see more of isn’t all that specific; it’s basically more shows that are allowed to stretch into the unique spaces their showrunners (and writing staffs) take them. The reason I still find much of the best SF television better than most SF movies is because writer-producers have traditionally wielded more power than their movie counterparts over their projects. That said, most of the shows I mentioned were shorter-lived than they deserved (fingers crossed that Fringe doesn’t ultimately fall into that category) and/or were forced into odd-shaped boxes or vision-breaking patterns at times by network execs to try and pick up more viewers. I’m not saying that administrative types can never have good ideas, just that creative people should be in charge of the final decisions. Mostly because I don’t think pandering to an audience that doesn’t exist yet or deviating from a strong vision is ever going to pick up more viewers. The SF shows I’d most like to see are ones I’d never dream up in a million years on my own.
But, okay, for this exercise, I’d love an HBO version of J.D. Robb’s In Death series, done up as a Jetsons-esque police procedural soap opera, with a producer that feels free to take some liberties in the way Alan Ball has done with the Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood. (And I’m majorly looking forward to Game of Thrones.) Or for someone to finally make a smart, dark series out of Scott Westerfeld’s perfect-for-TV Midnighters trilogy. Or a TV series version of Holly Black’s Curse Workers series (how wonderful would that be?). Clearly, this dream network head had better stop dreaming now, before she gets too depressed that these TV shows don’t already exist.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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