Source: The Hindu
Written by: Roz Kaveney
Submitted by: Lesmond
Concerns of a popular genre
American television has increasingly moved away from the single episode to the season, or even series, story arc.
MOST definitions of science fiction concentrate on its appropriation, for plot and settings, of scientific and sociological speculations. This is a view on which the late Kingsley Amis, the radical European theoretician Darko Suvin and the right-wing science-fiction magazine editor John W. Campbell could all agree. As with most genres of fiction, however, a significant part of science fiction’s subject matter is the genre itself, just as a significant strain of popular music can be analysed as a long trail of “answer records” in which one song inspires another. Rarely has this been more true than in the case of American television science fiction, where the long-standing dominance of one particular series has meant that much of what is best in other shows comes from offering a critique of it. Both M. Keith Booker in Science Fiction Television and Jan Johnson-Smith in American Science Fiction Television acknowledge the market dominance of the “Star Trek” franchise, but neither of them quite accepts the consequence of that dominance: that other successful shows have had to define themselves in relation to it.
To take one example, classic “Star Trek”, by which we mean the original show as devised by Gene Roddenberry with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the lead roles, and to a lesser extent, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with Patrick Stewart, were shows in which any particular episode more often than not restored its own starting position. (This is often referred to as “the reset button” and is parodied wittily as such in the film “Galaxy Quest”.) Part of the point of a highly structured show like J. Michael Straczynski’s “Babylon 5”, rightly regarded by both Booker and Johnson-Smith as a high point, is that hardly anything happens in its five years that does not have a consequence; if, in the second season, an alien diplomat expresses a wish to see his enemy’s head on a pike, you may be sure that in season four that wish will be answered.
This is not a development in science-fiction television alone; American television has increasingly moved away from the single episode to the season, or even series, story arc. Characters grow and change, and nothing done comes undone. The specific consequences for science-fiction television are that executives already unsympathetic to material they have not necessarily learned to parse have, come renewal time, begun to question whether a show offers a sufficiently easy entry point for new viewers.
Both Booker and Johnson-Smith write well about all the shows they discuss, and particularly about their favourites — Booker tries, gallantly, to make a case for the German/Canadian semi-parodic space opera “Lexx” and almost manages to persuade one to rewatch it. Johnson-Smith is especially eloquent about the little-known “Space: Above and Beyond” which he discusses in the light of post-Vietnam American cinema, though not in the context of the militarist strain in written science-fiction. (Robert Heinlein’s “Startship Trooper”, filmed by Paul Verhoeven, is relevant here.) He provides a case-study of “Babylon 5”, the only real faults of which are omissions constrained by brevity.
If Booker has a fault, it is a nostalgic taste for indefensibly poor work the memory of which is made rosy by time. The history of science-fiction television of course includes wobbly sets and too many alien locations instantly recognisable as the same patch of desert or quarry, but this is a subject for regret, not cuteness. Johnson-Smith’s main weakness is a habit of leaving other writers’ theoretical coinages unglossed; John Thornton’s “televisuality”, the technical shift to greater clarity through digital video and other advances, and the consequent practicality of the “realistic” even in fantastic genres, is a central concept in Johnson-Smith’s work which he would have done well to nail down.