Friday, April 2, 2010

A Science Fiction Equation

As the brilliant saga that is Lost comes to a close it got me thinking about what other science fiction shows might fill the void. As I looked around at the other science fiction TV on currently, I surely was not too impressed. Especially when held up against Lost. Science fiction TV is a genre, possibly more than the others, which has gone through plenty of births and rebirths. What is that formula that keeps people coming back week after week, and I am not talking about the die-hard fans? The fanboys are going to sit down at watch every episode of these types of shows and many others, cause that is what they do. They’ll by the DVDs, pour over the special features, salivate through the countless interviews and book that trip to LA for the convention. Although these obsessions were not born from mediocre hours of TV, rather from great TV even if sometimes they are in the minority. Or possibly in spite of that.

Back to my original question about what things make great science fiction TV. I think to start with it has more to do with how you use the content rather than the actual content. For instance, some of the concepts being put forth on Lost in many other packages would never make it into a worldwide phenomenon. Most of the audience willingness to go along with everything is based on how the characters deal with these situations. Lost’s characters are generally in disbelief of their circumstances and even poke fun at them on a regular basis. This willingness to be irreverent with the shows cannon, in my opinion, is one of the reasons Lost has been able to catch such a wide audience. Yet the show isn’t a comedy for sure and serious circumstances befall the characters on a constant basis, but they are never taken too a really dark place. Even a character that has done as much evil as Benjamin Linus can still be seen in a light manor and even endeared. You can only get that range from villains that are not caricatures. Many times, especially in science fiction, the bag guys are all bad and the good guys are all good. Take V and FlashForward, both have revealed villains that are nothing but evil and have even came out and said that outright.

However, this is not to say science fiction has to be all fun and games to work. Battlestar Galactica, the new one, is an example of a show that generally lacks a sense of humor. It goes deep and dark and when it comes up for air, it is done well all the while maintaining the fact that their race is about to become extinct. However, characters like Gaius Baltar, Kara Thrace, Head Six and even Saul Tigh have a fair share of humor to break up the grey. Battlestar also keeps the science fiction to a minimum, even if they are in the distant past, in another galaxy and flying around on space ships with artificial gravity that can travel faster than the speed of light, it still seems more rooted in reality than Lost.

Therefore, in my humble assessment a science fiction show either needs to have a heavy dose of smart comedy or go dark and ‘real’. The former seems to be the preferred and there have been some great science fiction TV in the past decade that serves up a heaping helping of funny along with the science. Some examples are; Firefly, Stargate SG1, Lost and Doctor Who. I am not saying there are not plenty of heavy moments in all of these shows, but they all deal with more out there science fiction ideas that they balance with great humor. The only other shows that come to mind that fall in the dark category would be Torchwood and Babylon 5, but neither gets a checkmark for being overtly ‘realistic’.

With this in mind lets look at the science fiction shows left standing after Lost has its final good bye.

FlashForward lacks humor and deals with some heavy science with little, so far, explanation. A faceless villain is also hard to get behind because this makes their motives unknown. Recently we were introduced to a few villains, but they seem like simple filler.

Fringe does have a pretty good sense of humor with Peter and Walter’s banter and even Olivia has lightened up. It does lack a bit of that cohesion that shows like Lost and Battlestar have. In addition, there is no real finite enemy to pinpoint and only recently have we been given some insight into the why and wherefores.

Stargate Universe has certainly taken a turn from its predecessors and is striving to take a few steps down a much darker road. It does have a bit of humor but nowhere near the amount in SG1 and Atlantis. Without that humor it is going to have to stay as ‘real’ as possible to keep the drama up.

V seems to be attempting to take the dark road also, but not doing it very well. When dealing with something as common to viewers as alien invasion you had better put a good spin on it. And them presenting themselves as friend instead of foe isn’t enough. It seems that it isn’t funny enough to stand as a light escape and isn’t dark enough to ask serious questions. The villains again are quite flat in comparison to a similar foe like Battlestar’s Cylons or even Lost’s Man in Black. A great villain is one that you can logically see their side of it, and it makes some sense.

Caprica might still be too new to call at this point, but it does have to fall in the dark category, because it certainly is not too funny. It doesn’t have a clear villain or hero for that matter, although I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. It is good we don’t have a faceless villain, but at any given moment the moral ground can be lost or held by just about any of the characters which can make it difficult to decide who to root for.

Day One has yet to grace TV screens, but one can hope it can take the formula and run with it successfully.

I am of course leaving out most of the more fantasy-based shows like Supernatural or one of the many vampire shows. Although they resonate slightly different, they too have to deal with this same balance as science fiction. Some shows that come to mind that really struck that balance well were, Pushing Daises, Supernatural, Dead Like Me and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There are plenty of shows that I left undiagnosed, but I believe they all have to have that balance between humor and seriousness. It would seem that one needs to do both well to be able to bring loyal and passing fans along for the ride. At their end most of the ‘good’ shows will leave us with tears of joy or sadness, more than likely a mixture of both, rather than doubled over in laughter. Because even though we want, or even need, to be entertained by the humor, we really want to be moved by the characters. In the end, one cannot expect you to cry with someone you have never laughed with.

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