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Saturday, 7 May 2011

Stargate Universe - Science fiction TV series as soaps

I've started watching Stargate Universe (SGU), which promises to be somewhere between Stargate and Battlestar Galactica. I'm only halfway through Season 1, but can't help making a few observations about SF series for TV. First, they usually take at least a season to get their act together. I have no idea why this is. Some don't survive past the first season. Sometimes this is a good thing - if you ever watched Crusader, the wooden and entirely predictable spin-off from Babylon Five, you'll know what I mean. But others, like Firefly, saddened me when they closed, as although the basic premise was a bit ropey (Space opera meets the Wild West), it was a lot of fun and the characters were interesting, dammit! Even classics like Start Trek Next Generation got off to a wobbly start, and I tend to think of Babylon Five as starting with Bruce Boxleitner, though of course it didn't. Start Trek Deep Space Nine had a brilliant start, then limped along for the next two seasons before the Dominion arrived and it really got going, and by the last three seasons was simply unmissable. Battlestar Galactica got off to a ferocious start, but then - partly courtesy of the writer's strike in the US - seemed to lose it completely in the last two seasons. Farscape was also a wobbler to begin with but picked up pretty fast, only to lose out at the end as its storyline drifted and the plots became too self-indulgent. Still I miss it though.

So back to SGU. What I notice is that there is too much heavy-handed effort to get the viewer to empathise with the characters. They keep breaking down and crying, sacrificing themselves, telling complete strangers their deepest fears and feelings. It all feels staged, so I end up rooting for the nastier characters!

The point is, people who watch SF series are interested in the SF - technology, aliens and alien worlds, alternative timelines, space-ships, cool effects, etc., not only the characters. Just putting people in a SF ship does not make it SF - there needs to be more, much more, to inspire our imaginations. That's what we're looking out for. Really good SF, like DS9, had great SF and great characters, and that's what made it a huge success (Voyager, too, for that matter). The tech was good, and there were characters we cared for. In that sense it did become SF soap, and you could forgive the odd dodgy or cheesy episode because the next one would be back on track, and everyone has bad days anyway. If the characters seem like friends, you forgive them. But if you've just met someone, and they start pouring their heart out to you, do you think: great, a real friend! Really?

Incidentally, for me, where Battlestar Galactica (the recent one) tripped up - aside from its slight steampunk feel and irritating camera-play - is that the characters kept mutating, good becoming bad and vice versa, sometimes more than once - as a viewer I ended up not caring for them at all.

So, Hollywood dreams of making SF series which will run for 7-9 seasons, and pay dividends for the next decades in re-runs, syndication, and DVDs. So - don't be in a rush to make us like these people, and spend some more time on the SF. At least some of the characters in SGU are nicely flawed, and the episode I just watched had - despite several crying sessions again! - a distorted timeline and a punchy ending that made me immediately check the next episode.
There is hope...

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