Monday, May 02, 2005

Evolution of Spec-Fi Television Story-Telling

Television itself has evolved over the years, from variety shows and sitcoms about nuclear families to reality shows and complex, high-intensity dramas. But spec-fi (which includes science fiction, fantasy, and shows that aren’t necessarily either of those but still explore “what-if” scenarios) television in particular has undergone an interesting transformation in the way it tells its stories.

Let’s look back to early television. In 1959, Rod Serling introduced the world to The Twilight Zone. Half hour (and, later, hour-long) shows took the viewer into a different speculative story every week. There were no regular characters and each episode stood on it’s own, but it showed that thought-provoking television was not only possible but also potentially very popular.

In the late sixties, science fiction grew as genre, but one series went beyond just taking place in space. Star Trek was billed as “Wagon Train in space” – a group of explorers encountering both external and internal conflicts. With a cast of regular characters and plenty of social commentary, Star Trek paved the way for all science television to follow.

Fast forward a bit to the ‘90’s. Star Trek: The Next Generation started to experiment with multi-part episodes and small story arcs in addition to their usual single-episode story lines. Cliff-hangers left viewers curious as to what would happen next, increasing the chances that they would tune in again. Then, two important shows came along in 1993. First, Bablyon 5’s pilot episode aired in early 1993. Bablyon 5 had several unique elements, not the least of which was the 5-year story arc. It was incredibly ambitious, and despite a rotating cast and occasional uncertainty about renewal, it worked surprisingly well. Part of the success lay in the fact that each season was also an arc, several smaller arcs occurred within each season, and each character had their own personal arcs. The show created a rich universe with truly alien cultures and even presented humans as being less than squeaky clean (I saw B5 as a more realistic future, compared to Star Trek’s ideal future in which humans miraculously get along).

Meanwhile, back on Earth, X-Files premiered in the fall of 1993. It started out as Star Trek did, with stand-alone episodes. And even though they, too, eventually discovered the beauty of the arc, X-Files major contribution to spec-fi was the main-streaming of speculative fiction. Up to this point, spec-fi was mainly found in syndication. If it was on a network, it was on Friday nights (if it had a solid timeslot at all – can you say Quantum Leap?), where it could easily be preempted by sports. X-Files, too, got that Friday night slot (though not the 8:00 death slot. At least four shows – all spec-fi - perished there during X-Files’ tenure). But it not only survived, it thrived. It appealed to a much broader audience then spec-fi usually did. There was just enough speculation to interest the geeks, but the characters were relatable enough to attract the previously non-geeky.

1997. Enter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know, what a stupid name for a television show. It took a Buffy marathon to get my dad past the title. But I think Buffy is the first full realization of modern spec-fi television. It wasn’t quite as ambitious as Babylon 5, but each season was a self-contained story-arc. At the beginning of the season, you were generally introduced to the villain(s) of the season (whether the main characters were aware of their existence or not). The threat would build in the background, occasionally boiling up to affect Buffy and her allies. Several smaller arcs would occur within the season. There were occasional stand-alones, but they tended to be the exception rather than the rule. It also had characters that average people could relate to like X-Files. In the end, slaying vampires and demons was way easier than dealing with the day-to-day of homework, friends, family, love, and death – true, irreversible human death.

Now we have shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica that follow this story-telling style. Here’s hoping the trend continues.

8 Comments:

Blogger Christiana said...

This is actually right along the lines of a recent NY Times article by this guy who suggests that modern culture, TV and video games in particular, are making us smarter, citing TV shows such as Lost and the Sopranos which feature multiple story arcs and rich continuity.

The original article is here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html?adxnnl=1&incamp=article_popular_5&pagewanted=1&adxnnlx=1114444827-IwOGeZrZE99BPlTpXm2oKQ
And I posted about it here: http://christianastuff.powerblogs.com/posts/1114455930.shtml

5/03/2005 9:28 PM  
Blogger Christiana said...

Here are those links again:

I posted about it here.

The original article is here.

5/03/2005 9:30 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I have heard what you called

"spec-fi (which includes science fiction, fantasy, and shows that aren’t necessarily either of those but still explore “what-if” scenarios)"

called "Genre" shows as a unit, as an identifier (much as you would use drama, sitcom, cop show, lawyer show to describe a show), which suits me just fine.

Such a title also neatly encompasses quirky shows like Lost, Wonderfalls, Veronica Mars, etc.

I have noticed a high mortality rate among Genre shows. Two in particular I wanted to mention were Young Indiana Jones and Earth 2, both early 90s shows that died early, but were forerunners of the "Lost"s and "Tru Calling"s of the world.

5/04/2005 8:26 AM  
Blogger SpakKadi said...

Christiana,

Excellent! I had been meaning to write this article for a while but I read an article similar to the one you linked to which focused mainly on TV and decided to stop procrastinating.

Jeremy,

Yes, the mortality rate is farely high, though not as high as it used to be. The SciFi channel used to have something called the Sci-Fi Series Collection. It was a collection of mostly short-lived genre shows (the only one that lasted more than six months was Planet of the Apes: The Series) that they showed every night at 8:00. When they ran out of episodes for one series, they'd show the first episode of the next series the following night. There were, of course, duds, but there were also quite a few interesting ideas. Ah, the days when the SciFi channel was actually the sci-fi channel.

5/04/2005 8:23 PM  
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10/28/2005 6:00 AM  
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