Is This End of Sci-Fi on Television? (2009)

dreamstimefree_42078491Now I Lay Thee Down To Sleep:  Are We at the Dawn of the Downfall of Sci-Fi Television?

With the recent cancellations of Joss Whedon’s “The Dollhouse” and ABC’s “Defying Gravity,” we are reminded yet again that television is not a gentle mistress for sci-fi television shows.

In fact, this is a bad time to be a sci-fi show on television. Television audiences just are not as forgiving and patient as they used to be. They do not want to wait for storylines to be slowly developed and then unpeeled layer after layer. They just want to have the onion cracked right open and to see what is inside. Alas, the only thing inside is but a nugget of what the real story is about. Just like a human life is not just about how a person died, a sci-fi story is not just about the last 15 minutes. A life is a journey. And that is what makes a story interesting – getting there is not just half the fun, it is the fun.

So when I hear people say that they could not follow “Lost” or just want to know all the answers to the questions posed, I am astounded. What good is it to list a set of answers to questions if it is not given some kind of framework to illustrate the importance or significance of the questions and the answers to each. One of the biggest and best questions from “Lost” has been: what is the monster? One day they just may tell us and we are going to be disappointed.

It is like pulling back the curtain in the “Wizard of Oz” and finding there is only an old man pulling all the levers. The story was much more exciting when Dorothy thought there was this magnificent Wizard of Oz who was the most powerful and magical being in the realm. And one day we will finally find out if Sylar is a good guy or bad guy on “Heroes” and we will feel just as unsatisfied with that answer as well. For it has been a roller-coaster of a ride wondering what the hell Sylar would do next. Was he going to help them or kill them in the end?

And one day Lex Luthor will rise up and be the notorious villain of comic-book lore. But watching the past 9 seasons of “Smallville,” I am grateful for the chance to see how Lex and Clark may have once been friends and how that disintegrated as Lex became more and more greedy and suspicious of what Clark may be hiding.

No, in sci-fi, it is the journey that is the most fascinating aspect of the story. One cannot simply read a book’s introduction and the last two pages, and in television, one cannot just have the opening credits and the closing scene. Nothing would make sense. We would not have the privilege and joy of discovering each character, their backstory and their path of self-discovery and see the importance of how they relate to one another. Life is not just about beginnings and endings. It is all the stuff in between that counts.

Yet more and more, television audiences are refusing to be satisfied with anything more than just the beginning and end. It is as if they were corrupted by the MTV-era and anything longer that 7 minutes is just too long and their inherent inability to sit still demands that they turn the channel or move on to the next pretty, shiny toy. However, seven minutes just is not enough to tell a story properly.

If you look back at any great television series (whether sci-fi or not), it was not just the first episode that was great or even the last episode. Somewhere in between there were these moments of greatness that no one ever saw coming. For “Heroes,” it was “Company Man.” For “Lost,” it was “Through the Looking Glass.” For “BSG,” it was “33.” And for virtually every show there is, you could name the one stand-out episode that was somewhere in the middle of that show’s journey.

But that one episode would have been nothing but for the episodes leading up to it. Each had carefully laid the foundation of the characters and how they related to one another that made those episodes all that much more climatic and amazing. No, the art of storytelling is laying the foundation. Just like a house cannot exist with just a hanging chandelier; for it must have a solid foundation, sturdy walls, a weatherproof roof and a few glistening windows. In sci-fi, a clever story has all the same elements. It has a strong foundation (the initial premise of the show), sturdy walls (the bare bones or turning points of the story), a weatherproof roof (an overall arcing story of where it is going), glistening windows (an array of interesting characters) and a whole lot of nails, boards, drywall, and paint. All these ingredients are necessary to build a home and all are just as equally necessary to build a sci-fi television series. If you leave one
out or skimp on the quality, all you have then is a shoddy home, or no home at all if the building inspectors deem it unfit for habitation.

These days the viewing audience is simply too impatient to allow for proper “homebuilding” (e.g., storytelling). We are the children of the “Me-generation” and the “I want it right now” generation. No patience. It is all about instant gratification. But nothing worthwhile can be achieved so quickly or by taking short-cuts. Recent examples would be the new television shows “FlashForward” and “V.” It is astounding how quickly viewers turned the channel once they realized they were not getting any fast answers. They wanted it right now, or they just tuned out. It is appalling.

One of the most highly regarded books of all time is Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” It is 1,475 pages long. God forbid someone ever told Tolstoy that people simply never take the time to read a book that long and he needed to shorten it to an acceptable length – like maybe 200 pages.

I posit that  science-fiction storytelling requires the same patience. It takes time to develop great stories and epic characters. It is only by taking the long journey with them that we appreciate all the exquisite attributes and their contributions along the way. It is also because we undertook the long arduous journey together that the pay off is that more rewarding. There is simply no greater joy than when finally reaching the end after a momentous journey.

So for all the impatient “I’ve got to have it now” television viewers I say this: you are missing out on the greatest story(ies) you’ll ever know simply because you had no patience to wait and discover where it went.

It is like opening your Christmas gifts the day after Thanksgiving. There is no joy in rushing things. Let the holidays unfold and wait patiently for Christmas morning. Watching all those glittering packages sit under the tree just builds the anticipation. And so it is with a sci-fi show, enjoy peeling back each exquisite layer. Cherish each and every character. Practice patience. Only then will you reap the reward having savored each and every moment of it.

So as we continue to hold wakes for the shows of yester year, mourning the loss of beloved “friends” that brought joy to our lives, we sit at sci-fi’s deathbed. For surely, shows like “Heroes,” “Fringe,” “V” and “FlashForward” will be next on the chopping block. Viewer-erosion is a sure fire way to foretell imminent cancellation. And with “Heroes” having fallen from a once regular viewership of 13 million to 5 million, “Fringe” from 12 million to 7 million, “V” from 14 million to 9 million and “FlashForward” from 11 million to 6 million, it is not hard to see the writing on the wall. Say your prayers or send you last-ditch pleas to networks, as I can hear the sound of the death bells tolling. Sci-fi television is surely at death’s door.

It is too soon to tell for such series, like “Stargate Universe,” “Sanctuary,” “Smallville,” or “Supernatural.” But, like “Lost” which closes the book on its 6 year journey next May, perhaps “Smallville” (which will be ending its ninth season) and “Supernatural” (which will be ending its fifth season) will also bow gracefully into the night.

That leaves shows such as “Stargate Universe,” “Sanctuary,” “Doctor Who,” “Torchwood,” “Eureka,” and “Warehouse 13” being the last holdouts of the sci-fi television era. We can only hope and pray that “Caprica” (the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel) captures enough of an audience to give it some legs. There is a sci-fi legacy that needs to be upheld. Let’s not have 2010 be the year that sci-fi television died.

8 thoughts on “Is This End of Sci-Fi on Television? (2009)

  1. I had one more additional thought as well on this after I got your response.

    I do find myself frustrated at the credit screen more and more at the shows my wife and I enjoy. I am starting to see more and more procedurals dropped into the middle of the serialized stories and this is making the serialized stories even bigger arcs to follow.

    I think its the serialized shows that try to mix in procedural one offs that is losing the audience members more than the nature of serialized tv.

    If you want to watch an evolving story you do not want to be interrupted by a chunk of story that doesn’t progress the story, regardless of how much you love the world the story takes place in or the characters.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my recent article “Is this the End of Sci-Fi on Television?” You certainly do bring up some valid points about how the current rating system does not accurately record those who watch TV shows via DVR or other means at a later date. However I stand by my assertion that viewers are not patient enough to watch serialized sci-fi shows. I speak not only as to the ratings, but from my own experience and frustration in trying to persuade friends, family and colleagues to stick with shows. The majority simply don’t have the desire to try to follow serialized stories and cling to the instant gratification of episodic television shows, like “CSI,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS,” and reality shows.

    But I sincerely appreciate your insight on how you enjoy watching television and how you feel the current ratings systems is not accurately representing you and others like you in how you like to watch television. It is not that you’re not committed, you simply enjoy watching serialized shows in a different way than our current television system allows for ratings-wise.

    It is thought-provoking and I may have to write a follow-up article to represent your viewpoint. Thank you.

    – Tiffany Vogt

  3. I don’t know that I agree with your conclussions here.

    The problem with the current system for rating television is that it bases its ratings on who watches the show at the time it airs or for a very limited period there after.

    In this ever evolving world of improving media distribution people are consumig media in alot of new ways and with more and more ways to offset the viewing times of these shows many are choosing to do so.

    Especially in cases where two networks aire competing shows in the same time slot. For many of us we view one live and record the other to watch later. Or even more common record them both with a dual card DVR box from your cable company.

    My wife and I like to build up 3, 4, or even 5 weeks worth of shows before sitting down and burning through our DVR. It’s much more fulfilling to see the long buildup of story arcs over a short sitting.

    I think this counters your point. It’s not that people don’t watch these shows its that they don’t watch them in the executed fashion the movie studios use to rate their shows. You can’t put up a series like lost where you have huge over arching themes and long long time going questions that gradually get answered against a show that is a procedural that is a tight little bundle week after week. There is bound to be a demographic who saved multiple episodes before viewing and thus breaks the rating system inplace.

    The reality is it’s the tv studios who want right now results not neccessarily the viewers. They aren’t willing to develop a system that takes into account viewership weeks after the initial airing. With so many people with cable and satelite boxes with built in DVR I really question the value of these traditional rating systems that use random sampling to determine viewership.

    If a epidose gets recorded on our DVR it should count towards the rating, the technology is there now to do this. If DVR numbers counted as veiwership how much better would ratings be across the board? Will we ever know?

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