For those too young to remember, Banacek was an NBC series starring George Peppard as a suave Polish investigator assigned to uncover the mystery of objects and people that went missing under seemingly impossible circumstances. It struck me that you could not pitch a character like Banacek today; He was a womanizer (the first episode features the ever-yummy Anitra Ford serving him champagne while he watches TV), smoked cigars, and his job was to help insurance companies avoid paying claims. You might pitch it as a period piece, a la Mad Men, as a window to a less-enlightened time, but never as a modern show, at least not without significant modifications. It got me thinking about what SF/F TV characters would fail as new creations today.
To be clear, I do not mean reboots or reimaginings. I mean characters existing as they did when they were originally portrayed on TV, with their personality traits and behaviors intact, and pitching them in today’s social and political climate. We’ve come quite a distance from couples sleeping in separate beds, but there are things considered taboo today that were rampant on TV past.
Here are few that came to mind…
Everyone recalls Jonathan Harris’ camp portrayal of the Jupiter II’s resident stowaway. But his occasional lapses into Rip Taylor-level flamboyance are tame compared to the behavior found on half the shows on Bravo. The same could be said about his maintaining an air of self-aggrandizement, and proclaiming his superior intellectual skills despite his 100% failure rate. He is a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large, strutting into crises with the tactical acumen of Mr. Bean. But watching train wrecks is a grand tradition, with titans like Lucy Ricardo and Basil Fawlty to be hailed paragons of incompetence. But even they never committed the unforgivable sin of placing a young boy into mortal danger every week. For every time he put the Robinson family at risk, there were at last three times he led Will directly into peril. It pains me greatly to say all of this, because Harris maintained a comically brilliant performance on that awful, awful show. It should also be noted that very little of Smith’s personality survived the big screen reboot, and he was retooled as a more classic villain.
Max Headroom’s intrepid reporter heroically blows the lid off injustice, conspiracy, and scandal, all while schlepping his own camera around. He acts against corporate interests and sinister advertisers. He’s cut from a long tradition of crusading reporter-protagonists. That is all well and good, except on the show he’s not an subversive insurgent operating in the shadows. He is the face of the network, its biggest draw, the equivalent of an Anderson Cooper or Christiane Amanpour, especially after his digital doppelganger becomes popular. He has a tendency to not only go against corporate mandate, but report against the interest of the network he works for, leading to executives and advertisers being exposed.
The modern 24-hour news cycle has left the dystopian world of “20 minutes into the future” in the dust. News outlets are revenue-generating juggernauts with clear agendas, and Carters tactics would never fly. The character might work today as a rebel video-blogger, or some underground truthseeker, but not as an integral part of a large corporate entity.
While we are in the future please consider Max: A rouge AI with full, unfettered access to every computer, broadcast, and surveillance network. He acts autonomously against governments and corporations. He is answerable to no one. If unleashed today his creation would lead to emergency regulations, vast restrictions on communications, and a wave of new cyber-terrorism laws. You might successfully pitch his character as the catalyst of a world-wide crisis, or some awakening of part of the Internet. But a stuttering, whimsical clown who entertains the masses? Not a chance.
In the decade since 9/11, federal agencies have promoted themselves as tireless guardians of freedom and a vigilant force against chaos. We live in a world where the FBI has a broad spectrum of powers. They are portrayed on any number of shows as hard, uber-capable, and indefatigable in their forensic and counter-terrorism duties. Into this environment we introduce a deeply wounded protagonist who eschews national security to chase down conspiracies and dig away at truths those in power are hiding from us. He is relentlessly brooding, often fueled by an almost obscene despair over imminent oblivion at the hands of an alien/government cabal. On top of that, he seldom actually solves cases, and too many suspects and crime scenes have mysteriously disappeared on his watch. Modern security theater has no place for our dear Fox.
The seemingly benign I Dream of Jeannie featured a wholly inept Djinn, willfully and enthusiastically subservient to a neurotic astronaut, and often manipulated by his unstable friend. It manages to be hostile to Islamic mythology, modern feminism, and America’s space program in equal measure. You’d have a better chance pitching a sitcom about the Branch Davidians.
When Professor Sarah Hingley wrote the character of Reg, she intended him to be a satirical take on geek obsessions. He was mirror held up to fandom, triggering laughter in some and queasiness in others. Look, we all love Barclay. He’s troubled and introverted, but he’s intelligent and has the best of intentions. He has repeatedly saved the day in the face of debilitating humiliation. He became a template for modern nerd characters, prying that crown away from the accursed Urkel. He also, you may recall, got in a lot of trouble for the repeated sexual objectification of shipmates in the holodeck, and claiming that the fantasy versions were more real to him than the meatspace ones. These tendencies, for comic relief no less, veer a bit too close to cyberstalking. In a time when unwelcome behavior towards women at conventions and conferences is being brought to light and rightfully confronted, such traits that would not be tolerated in a sympathetic character. His escapism might be retooled as some futuristic metaphor for LARPing, instead of dressing up a puppet of his counselor in sexy robes.
If any SF character fell from the same tree as Banacek, it’s Kirk. His courtship habits would draw ire if introduced today. He seduced at least one developmentally-challenged woman. The dark half of him resulting from a transporter accident was an attempted rapist. That’s a lot of baggage for a character designed to be the moral compass for a show about humanity’s future. His conquests were enough to merit their own book! It’s true that George Costanza had more women than Kirk, but he wasn’t a hero. Look around, are there any womanizing protagonists on TV anymore? Now, to be fair, Laura Goodwin has created an excellent website devoted to clearing Kirk’s name. But the captain’s prowess has historically been one of his defining traits, and it was conspicuously absent from J.J. Abrams’ reboot.
As I write this it dawns on me that there are few female characters who fit my criteria. It’s not a stretch to imagine the women of the original Battlestar Galactica or Wilma Deering on a modern SF TV show. Even such uniquely 70s artifacts as Heather Menzies in a short skirt and Audrey Landers riding a unicorn could survive unaltered. And we will not discuss the reboot of Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl…
If any female from TV of the past is going to be scrutinized, it would have to be Princess Ardala. She’s a powerful interplanetary ruler who uses her considerable resources and fleet of death machines in order to get Buck Rogers to sleep with her. A one-note villain like that might work on an Adult Swim cartoon, but not a space opera.
There are others I could nitpick: The Thunderbirds Tracy Family is a wealthy clan on a private island that launches unregulated super-advanced vehicles into sovereign airspace. Matthew Starr is alien royalty living undocumented in California. Carl Kolchak has sidestepped and insulted the cops so often that in real life his apartment would be raided by swat teams. All would run counter to some modern sensibility.
Which makes me wonder: which modern characters will be unacceptable in the future?