Saturday, April 4, 2009

Deconstructing Science Fiction Television

Right now I'm a student at UBC doing the MFA in Creative Writing. I was in a course on Television Writing, and, as each student was, was asked to deconstruct a particular genre of television. Being a techno-geek, I chose what was closest to my heart - Science Fiction. What follows is a longish deconstruction and discussion of the form






Science fiction, as a genre, holds an odd place in the pantheon of entertainment genres. While science fiction pervades film, television, and literature, and has been a legitimate genre for over a century, it yet carries a certain downmarket cachet. Lovers of the genre are not generally noted for their ability to bypass the line at Easy & The 5th, or This is London. Instead of giving a shout out to their crew as they roll past in their pimped out ride, popular conception has it being more likely they'd be shouting out from their room in the basement, asking Mom when dinner will be ready. If one image could sum up the popular conception of the science fiction audience, it would be this -



Though countless science fiction shows, films, and novels flood the market year after year, in the world of television in particular, science fiction is often more miss than hit, for a number of surprising reasons. The genre itself is replete with titles that inspire fanatic devotion amongst their fan base. You won't see Seinfeld Con '09 heading to Pittsburgh any time soon, or any gathering of Gilmore Girls fans in the local arena. But you will likely hear about comic book conventions, Star Trek Conventions, and large scale science fiction conventions going on in countless cities across North America every year. The type of person that heads off to one of these conventions thinks nothing of packing friends or family into the van and driving from Miami to Seattle, or Calgary to Montreal for these conventions. They not only watch the shows, they buy the DVD sets (Including all box sets, director's cuts and re-released special editions), they buy the tie in novels, the merchandise, and they debate the minutiae of their shows with a ferocity that puts Question Period to shame. And yet...



You would think that with a fan base already prepared to embrace a product in the vein of others that were so adored and loved, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Babylon 5, a product that is guaranteed to live on for decades after the show itself finishes its last broadcast, that there would be more science fiction on television. You would think that the networks would be throwing science fiction shows on the schedule like buckshot from a .22 gauge just in the hopes that something would stick, but they don't seem to. And that leads to the key question. Considering the upsides, why aren't there more science fiction shows on television?

The truth is, there are actually more science fiction shows on than you might think, but the only ones that achieve mainstream success now are marketed as anything but science fiction. In the US, two of the most popular shows on television are 24, and Lost. 24, while not directly science fiction, has a very considerable number of science fiction elements. As for Lost, the writers and creators of the show have been absolutely clear about the show as science fiction, but you would never know that by observing how the show is marketed to audiences and sold to other markets. A mystery? Sure. A conspiracy story? Even better. Science fiction? Oh no, not in this life, senor. In Canada, the new show Being Erica, which while not a breakaway smash has pulled in strong numbers and has trended steadily upwards from week to week. Enthused by the growing success of the show, the CBC even moved the venerable Fifth Estate from it’s traditional timeslot, and popped Being Erica in, in order to beef up the demo in that time period. In ads and promos, Being Erica is presented almost as a Felicity-ish drama for young and professional women. Yet the entire premise of the show is one of the most hackneyed science fiction plot devices of all time – time travel. In fact, the recently aired episode “Such a Perfect Day” was one of the most detailed explorations of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle ever attempted on television. But you’d never hear that from the CBC.

The networks actually do like to produce science fiction, but their margin for error is far smaller for science fiction shows than for many other shows. One key reason is expense. Science fiction is usually heavily effects driven, requiring massive budgets, large casts, and larger crews. Not to mention custom sound stages built at even greater expense. Unlike a show like Desperate Housewives, whose Mysteria Lane has served as the back drop for countless movies of the week, dramas, and procedurals, the set of a science fiction show can’t easily be repurposed for some other show. If Roseanne jumped back into the sitcom game, there is very little chance you’d see her traipsing across the bridge of the NCC-1701-D. Still, the networks do try, and the past ten years has included shows such as Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Alias, Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis, The Pretender, The Visitor, Taken, The 4400, Andromeda, Bionic Woman, Charlie Jade, Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, The Last Enemy, Odyssey 5, Farscape, Painkiller Jane, Flash Gordon, Cleopatra 2525, Dark Angel , Day Break, The Dead Zone, Earth: Final Conflict, First Wave, Surface, Invasion, Firefly, Jericho, Jeremiah, Jake 2.0, Kyle XY, John Doe, The Twilight Zone, Seven Days, The Outer Limits, Journeyman, Life on Mars, Psi Factor, Fringe, Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, Roswell, Tru Calling, the X – Files, Being Erica, and Heroes. Those are just the ones that aired in the past decade. There are more, actually, but I think you get the idea.

Of all those shows I listed above, very few became breakaway hits. Most were canceled after one season. A few went on for several seasons, surviving on cable channels that are entirely cool with 1 or 2 million viewers for an episode. Since less than 10 million viewers sends the main networks into panic mode, it is easy to see why the survival rate for shows on the main networks is so low. In fact, the last true long running (5+ years) network science fiction shows were The X-Files, and Star Trek: Voyager, shows which ended 6, and 7 years ago, respectively, and both had been originally green-lit in the early to mid ‘90s. Think on that for a moment. The last two successful mainstream science fiction shows began at the same time the world wide web was born. While you can argue that at 5 years and going, Lost ranks up there with The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager, the fact that ABC goes out of its way to downplay the science fiction angle takes it out of contention.



Today, a science fiction show is wildly successful if it can hit between 2 to 4 million viewers on cable, and 10 million on network television. Even at the current height of its popularity, Battlestar Galactica is lucky if it can pull in five million viewers for an episode. Mind you, of those five million, there is a very significant number who, ten years from now, will still know the difference between Anders and Adama, or Gaius and Gaeta. Not only will they be able to tell you the difference between a viper and raptor, there's a good chance they'll be able to take a model or picture of either off a shelf to show you in person. It is that sort of fanatic devotion which sustains networks like SciFi and Space: The Imagination Station. But it’s also the sort of devotion which the major networks are ambivalent to at best.

But why is that? Why would they be so ambivalent? It all has to do with the numbers. The numbers which determine what a network can set for ad rates, and the numbers which prompt advertisers to associate with a show. The Battlestar Galactica crowd may be the kind who also own a Playstation, or who subscribe to PC Magazine, but they are generally not the demo Johnson & Johnson or Clairol want to market to. This is why, whenever a science fiction show is deemed to geeky, to focused on whizz bangery or intricate multi-episode narrative arcs, the kinds of things the hard core fans live for, network execs simply cannot help stepping in and fiddling around in order to entice a new demo. Usually the involves a cast change, and almost always a change that includes a woman will later be a shoe-in to grace the pages of Maxim and Stuff for men. Remember Sliders? In order to make a good show better, network execs decided the way to improve the show was to get rid of the fat guy and the black guy, two majorly key characters, and an eye-catching hottie in their place. The result? Not good. Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a more recent victim of network exec asshatery, suffered a similar fate when Fox execs decided to juggle episode order, broadcast dates, and even times like clowns with a couple of Nerf balls.

So what then for science fiction? In the current market, science fiction survives on networks when the science aspect can be soft peddled, or seconded to themes like mystery or conspiracy. Fringe, which has been pulling in respectable numbers since its premiere last fall is just as science fiction at the core as Alias was, but the that element is buried beneath the procedural/government conspiracy themes in the show. Thus far Fox has been falling on its face with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse, with each barely hitting the 5 million mark each week, and the future for these good, promising shows does not look good.

The Evolution of Science Fiction Television


Science fiction on television has often taken on certain forms or aspects that prevailed for periods of time. In the late 1940's to the mid 1950's, science fiction mirrored the popular westerns of the time, being action oriented, and centered on dashing heroes who fought sinister villains week to week. The similarities were so strong that the only differences between the average western or sci-fi serial were the clothes and modes of transportation. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon really epitomized the era.

The mid 1950's saw a shift to the anthology series as the prime form of the genre. Science Fiction Theatre, The Twilight Zone, and the Outer Limits brought hard science fiction to the masses. Hard science fiction refers to ideas based science fiction, not to be confused with "turgid" or "tumescent", which was the hallmark of '70's classics such as Flesh Gordon. Aside from a narrator or narrative voice, the actors, locations, and styles of each episode changed from week to week.

The mid 60’s was when space exploration was king. Lost in Space and the original Star Trek took viewers to new places every week, as they travelled through the great black void. This theme was short lived, however, with the 70’s, space exploration gave way to space opera with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century the original Battlestar Galactica, and Blake’s 7, and science fantasy with The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman.

The mid ‘80s to mid 90’s was when cold war inspired narratives became popular. The miniseries V featured a “red” alien enemy infiltrating and taking over the United States. Alien Nation saw the arrival of a spaceship filled with a former “slave people” who had rebelled and overthrown their overlords. Star Trek: the Next Generation, which began in 1987, featured a very Americanized “federation” clashing at “the Neutral Zone” with an overwhelming and vaguely communistic enemy known as the Romulans. Even “Quantum Leap” which was set on Earth in contemporary locations, fit the mould as Sam travelled through time to correct the “mistakes of the past” and rewrite history for the better.

Up until this point pretty much every science fiction show followed the MOW model. Not “movie-if-the-week,” but “monster of the week.” Each episode featured a single story with a battle against an antagonist, that was resolved by the end of the episode. Or, in rare cases, at the end of two. Events from the past would be referred to, but not events from the future. There were no grand conspiracies, and the nature of good and evil, including who was on what side, was crystal clear. That all changed in the ‘90s, which, coincidentally, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a time many saw as the end of history, where the shades of grey replaced the dark/light, good/evil dichotomies that had characterized the cold war world.

This was when the science fiction game changed, a change that also affected mainstream television. The mid 90’s was when shows like The X-Files, Babylon 5, and Millennium introduced the multi-season long narrative arc. The serial form so common in daytime soaps, which had never really made the transition to prime time, became the modus operandi for science fiction TV. Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which had followed the venerable MOW model for the first few years, suddenly started adding in massive multi-season arcs. Like Babylon 5, they also started implementing forward flashes in addition to back flashes, creating a far richer, but also more complicated storytelling environment. The bar was set sky high for the series that followed, with science fiction fans expecting nothing less than this sort of rich rewarding storytelling. Yet it was this rich, rewarding storytelling that also alienated mainstream audiences, especially casual viewers, who did not obsessively watch every episode, and thus often felt out of the loop, and turned away.

The mid ‘00s saw the epitome of the multi-layered, multi-arc science fiction show with Lost. . Even mainstream shows followed suit. 24, Prison Break, The Nine, Reunion, and The West Wing. Pretty much every science fiction show launched then followed this formulas Journeyman, Invasion, Surface, Threshold, Firefly, and Jericho are prime examples. And each faced the indifferent wrath of the mainstream audience, with each fading into ignominy after a single season. Well…except for Firefly. That show kicked some rear, and got a feature film to boot. And maybe Jericho could be an exception as well. When thousands of people mailed nuts to the network in a massive fan campaign, the suits for once reacted by giving them a truncated second season to placate them.

Today, in the late ‘00s, the complicated, serial science fiction of the previous decade has almost entirely disappeared. Although cable networks are still addicted to the serial form, their shorter 13 episode season gives casual viewers a chance to catch up on their own time. Lately there has been a return to the reliable MOW formula, but with a small tinge of multi-arc conspiracy to boot. Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Eleventh Hour, Life on Mars, Chuck, Medium and Dollhouse are all “serial-lite” MOW shows. The lone exceptions are Lost and Heroes.

Characteristics of the Genre

Before we can take an accurate look at science fiction as a particular genre, we need to see just where on the tree it sits. Though the term "science fiction' is often seen as an umbrella term, encompassing everything from stories about wizards to stories about robots, science fiction is actually only a small subset of a far larger genre known as "speculative fiction." The driving force behind the speculative fiction genre is the question "what if?" Every subset of speculative fiction is is derived from a modification of that simple two word question. For horror, it might be "what if you were trapped in a house with zombies" (The Dead Set). For fantasy, it might be "what if the world was threatened by a dark wizard?" (The Legend of the Seeker). For science fiction, it might be "what if faster than light travel were possible?" (Star Trek).

In each case, for each of these sub genres, the entire conception of a story does not start with a particular person, character, or historical event, it starts with an idea, a speculation. What sub genre that speculation will fall into will depend on the question. In sitcoms the audience usually tunes in to see a well known, popular comedian. For procedurals, audiences tune in to see someone die, someone search for the truth, and someone pay for their deeds. For science fiction, audiences tune in to see the what if, not of the impossible, but of the improbable.

Rod Serling the legendary creator, showrunner, and principal writer of the iconic series "The Twilight Zone" was once quoted as saying that "It has been said that science-fiction and fantasy are two different things: science-fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable." In a science fiction show there is usually some idea, connected to something science related, which affects humanity. The purpose of the genre is to explore how that science related change will affect the world.

Deconstruction of the Televised Form

Science fiction shows have historically differed from mainstream shows in three key ways. First, they are fuelled by an idea, not a famous lead actor, or a mundane domestic situation, but some outlandish idea that does not currently exist in reality. The what ifs can include time travel, space travel, dimensional travel, wormhole travel, faster-than-light travel, aliens, alien invasions, and alien first contact. The second key way science fiction shows differ is that they usually depend on large casts. All the Star Trek’s required an entire ship’s company. Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 had crew, citizens, travelers, diplomats, and alien armies constantly passing through. In fact, the small cast science fiction show is relatively rare. Even seemingly small cast shows like being Erica and Charlie Jade actually have quite an extensive list of secondary, but recurring cast members which grows every episode. The lone exception, I believe, though I stand to be corrected, was probably Quantum Leap, which all of two key characters from episode to episode. Finally, science fiction shows really depend on the use of exposition to set up a detailed fictive universe. The more distant the show is set from Everywhere U.S.A., the more time and energy has to be spent focusing on the details. In the current Battlestar Galactica, writers, there are no rectangular papers or photos, and every paper and picture in the show has cut corner, resembling elongated octagons. References to polytheism abound in the dress of characters and the set decorations. References are made to a massive backstory involving multiple worlds and cultures, and there is an entirely made up religion with it’s own bible “The Book of Kobol” that is quoted in many episodes. Unlike a show like The O.C., which could coast on the audience knowing the location, and details of the area, shows like Battlestar Galactica have to undertake gargantuan writing tasks in order to establish the sense of a concrete, real, alternate reality.

In terms of time, generally speaking, science fiction shows also adhere to a one hour running time. Only science fiction sitcoms like 3rd Rock from the Sun and Cavemen were half hour shows. This means that science fiction competes directly with the dramas and procedurals, forms that are far, far stronger with the key demos that advertisers truly crave. So in order to put on a successful science fiction show on a main network, there needs to be some sort of attempt to win over mainstream audiences. Examples include the more successful, Fringe, and the less successful, Dollhouse.

Comparative Forms of Science Fiction, and Cultural Impact

The first was to look at science fiction as it exists in novels, in comic books, in films, and on television. Here is the short version.

In novels, science fiction is a massive market place. Long serials, and tie in novels are especially popular, and regularly outsell even the most popular titles in literary fiction. (Actually, the same is also true for Harlequin Romance, which is the world's largest trade fiction publisher...owned by our very own Torstar corp!).

Comic books have long been a niche industry, of paramount importance to countless teenage boys, but otherwise consigned to the cultural sidelines. While it wasn't a large business, it also wasn't an expensive business, so publishers could always make a steady profit. Until, that is, those teenage boys grew up and gained control of studios and production companies, and the comics business became truly big business indeed, adding lucrative tie ins with movies and television.

Science fiction on film is the most successful form of the genre. All told, of the top 30 grossing movies of all time, science fiction films have accounted for $22.5 billion in box office revenues alone. Of the top 30 highest grossing movies, 23 are science fiction, 4 are animated films (Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo) which fall within the speculative fiction umbrella, and only 3 would be considered normal fiction - Titanic, Indiana Jones IV, and The Da Vinci Code. That's 27 on the science/speculative fiction side and 3 on the other. Go down through the top 60, and the ratio stays roughly the same.

Which brings us to science fiction on television. SFTV has not had as easy a ride as the other three forms. It is expensive to produce and faces a fickle audience reception. On recently has the cost of producing science fiction fallen as the price of computing hit rock bottom. Still, though SFTV has not had the economic impact on TV that it has in the movie world, the cultural impact has been enormous. No other televised form has so thoroughly pervaded the mainstream culture, and become the long lasting bedrock of popular culture. In fact, the impact has been frakking huge.




Sample Shows

A) - Being Erica



Being Erica is very, very new. Not even two months old, it has already proven to be a very surprisingly high quality show that has received raves from viewers and critics alike. That said, the science fiction community is almost entirely blind to the show, since the CBC steers clear of science fiction related references in their advertising. They market as a drama that appeals to young and professional women, in the 28 – 40 female demographic that is #1 with advertisers. In fact, the CBC even sold the show to the US cable network SOAPnet.

While this may alienate science fiction audiences at first, the strategy does seem to be working with mainstream audiences in the right demo. If the show continues and gets renewed, there is a better than even chance that the science fiction audiences will have a chance to hear of the show, sample it, and come to appreciate the subtle and clever way the show deals with science fiction “what ifs.”

The Premise

Erica Strange, 30 year old woman who seems to have stalled spectacularly in her life, who cannot hold a job or relationship to save her life, finds herself at a crisis point. It is then that she runs into a man known only as Dr. Tom. He offers to help her, and against her own good judgment, she goes to see him at his posh Yorkville office. He asks her to write down a list of all her greatest regrets, and thinking this was a precursor to normal lay-on-the-couch therapy, Erica complies. However, Erica learns the truth about this “therapy” when she suddenly finds herself back in the eleventh grade, a 30 year old trapped in her 16 year old body. Furthermore, Erica finds herself right at the time of one of her greatest regrets from her youth, what she saw as her lost chance to find true love with a high school sweetheart. Meeting Dr. Tom in the street, the is advised to try to fix her past and make things better.

Analysis

So far each episode has followed a set formula pretty strictly. Erica encounters some sort of difficulty in the present, and all of a sudden Dr. Tom appears and the next thing Erica knows, she back in time. No reference is made as to how Dr. Tom sends her back, so the show could be either fantasy or science fiction but the subtle references to scientific concepts at various points in the show tilt Being Erica firmly into the science fiction genre. Perhaps the writers are relying on the old trope that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, meaning that even if it looks like magic, we can assume that science is behind it.

As the show has progressed, Erica has come to terms with her situation, and deals with trips into the past they way one deals with an annoying uncle. It’s annoying, but a normal part of life. Erica is also learning that changing the past is not as easy as it seems. In the first episode, while she tries to get the guy at an important school dance, and have the night of her life by not getting roaring drunk, her actions lead to a friend over drinking the vodka that Erica was supposed to have had, and the friend collapsing with alcohol poisoning, but not before throwing up all over Erica’s dress. Before the friend collapses, Erica takes off her dress, gives it to a friend, and asks her to rinse it off. Unfortunately Erica is naked when the drunk friend keels over into unconsciousness. This leads to Erica making a choice – a) go for the guy and change the past, or b) save her friend by running naked into a crowded gymnasium to ask for help, even though it means committing the same social suicide she had in the past. Being a grown woman, Erica chooses her friend over embarrassment, and save her friend’s life.

The interesting thing about this episode is that it shows how, even though Erica does change the past, the past has its own way of retaining equilibrium. He choice not to get drunk didn’t change her outcome, only the path to that same outcome, bringing up the notion of pre-determination. Although Erica’s ability to consciously choose her path to the pre-determined end argues that you actually can change the past, just not necessarily in the manner you might have intended.


B) - Charlie Jade



Charlie Jade was a one season Canadian – South Africa Co-Pro that featured the talents of Canadian TV Writing bigwigs Alex Epstein and Denis McGrath. While in most respects Charlie Jade is a traditional science fiction show, stands apart due to it non-traditional locale (i.e. not “Anywhere U.S.A.”), and the Blade Runner-esque neo-Noir feel. Unlike feel-good shows like Being Erica, or optimistic manifest destiny infused shows like Star Trek where the future is full of bright possibility, Charlie Jade presents the viewer with a full on dystopia, controlled by an all-powerful, inhuman corporation.

Premise

The viewer is quickly clued into the premise of the show when, in the first minute of the pilot, the protagonist Charlie Jade clearly says “We were living a lie. The big lie. They told us parallel universes couldn’t exists, let alone travel between them. The lie was dreamt up, packaged, and sold to us by the Vexcorp Corporation.”

Through expository monologue, as the episode progresses, the audience learns that Vexcorp rules this part of this world, known as the Alpha Verse. The population is segregated by caste, with C1s being full citizens, immune from interference by lower castes, C2s representing the Yeomenry, free, but subordinate to C1s, and C3s, the lower caste, with no human rights, no right to property, and forced to live in the shadows. Later the other two “verses” are revealed, the Beta Verse (our Earth) and the Gamma Verse (A utopian Earth free of conflict and strife). Vexcorp had found a way to travel between all three verses, and is leveraging the different technological levels and resources bases of the three verses to build itself a massive, untouchable empire. The end of the pilot has two activists in the Gamma Verse commit an act of terror and blow up the Vexcorp facility. Unfortunately this sabotage occurs during a sensitive stage, and Charlie Jade, who is in the vicinity of the Alpha Verse Vexcorp site when the explosion occurs, finds himself flung into the Beta Verse, modern day Cape Town South Africa. From here Charlie sets off to find out what happened, and along the way learns that a man he had been tracking in the Alpha Verse, 01 Boxer, the son of the founder of Vexcorp, has been flitting between the verses privately, in a drug induced orgy of murder and debauchery. Charlie encounters an ally, Karl, who agrees to help Charlie in his quest.

Analysis

Charlie Jade is hard science fiction in the sense that a) deals with a concrete science based “what if” scenario, b) is filled with expository monologue and dialogue, and c) showcases the effect that certain technology or systems might have on society.

Overall the show is serial in nature, and requires the audience to view the episodes in order. The sets are often far darker and grimier than found in mainstream science fiction, which reinforces the noir-ish feel. Also, the camera angles are surprisingly odd at times, giving the show more the feel of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element than your average Star Trek episode.

The concepts the show deals with are very heavy science fiction in nature, and not readily accessible to a mainstream audience. Originally shown in South Africa and Canada in 2005, the show was picked up by the SciFi network in 2008, which broadcast the one and only season. Science fiction fans loved the show, and the show has inspired a small following, which supports the rabid fan hypothesis articulated earlier. However the rejection of the show by mainstream audiences also reinforces the opposite reaction, being that the further a show pleases science fiction fans, the more it alienates itself with mainstream audiences.

Addendum

Following this presentation, there were a number of pointed, thoughtful questions from others in the workshop. Below are a few of those questions, and my responses.

1) Does something science fiction necessarily qualify as science fiction? The SETTING of ST:TNG is a space ship and there's technology galore - but it's really a character drama and the Enterprise is the setting for morality tales to be told on a weekly basis.

You are right that it is character driven drama, which is why it was so successful across a broad demographic. You can liken ST:TNG to TOS as a mature adult to an adolescent. The original series was full of the idea of space exploration, and interactions with alien races, but there was also the adolescent science fiction way that women were handled. Kirk didn't kick ass and take names, he kicked ass and banged babes. Dude had smokin' hotties on his left and his right, and to boot he made sure the womenfolk on the ship kept their skirts to an appropriate shortness. It's Edgar Rice Burroughs in a nutshell. A strapping dude with a big old gun in one hand, and damsel in the other, takes on the galaxy.

But ST:TNG flipped the script. Instead of virile Captain Kirk, we got a bald dude named Picard (and French too?...Geez). Sure the engineers in both were accented English speakers who looked like recovering alcoholics, but the fervency and fire of the OS crew had morphed into the bureaucratic normalcy of the ST:TNG shipboard community. The NC-1701-D wasn't just a military ship, it had civilians and children aboard. Families, and even foreign travelers from time to time.

Still, for all the softening of the image, every episode of ST:TNG had, at it's core, a real science fiction "what if." Some episodes didn't do it as well, others hit it out of the park. Inner Light was one example of excellent science fiction. Another was First Contact. If you took away the ideas based science fiction core of each episode, you would still have some of the character drama, but the show itself wouldn't function, which is why ST:TNG is science fiction.

2) I am curious about your contention that 24 is sci-fi. By this definition ANY show that features an item that doesn't yet exist, or stretches technology a little ways is sci-fi? or am I misreading that?

Let's start with the idea that "any show" could be science fiction.

If the new piece of technology has an effect on society great enough that the society of the show is noticeably different than our society, then yes. Of course you can classify a show on a scale ranging from light to hard. Take Mork and Mindy as an example. Ostensibly science fiction, yes, but would you see it as "real" science fiction? Maybe not. It was a fish out of water story, a la the Beverly Hillbillies, but with Robin Williams instead of a car full of hicks. In Mork and Mindy you can tell the same story without the alien angle, easily. As Epstein says in Craft TV Writing (paraphrased here) science fiction shows that only use the genre as a dressing, are by definition bad shows. So what about 24 and ST:TNG?

But what about 24?

In the case of 24, the science fiction aspect of the show is the notion of near to total perfect control of information, both on the side of good (CTU) or the side of evil (The Gub'ment, Syrian Warlord, Dad, etc). The audience has to buy into the notion that CTU can see anywhere on Earth at will (Satellites), can enter any database on Earth in the time it takes to make a phone call (Chloe), and can decode, coordinate, and disseminate information, perfectly, at lightning fast speeds (Whoever is in charge). The audience also has to buy into the notion that the enemy can infiltrate CTU, or the Presidency easier than a neighborhood barbeque.

Basically the show asks us "what if the enemy was so sharp, so skilled, and so technologically advanced, that only the most talented geniuses and ruthless defenders could stop them?"

You could think of it as political science fiction, if you will, but in reality the true science fiction aspect of the show is how networked technology changes the rules of engagement in modern warfare. Take away networked technology, and the show can't function, which is why it is science fiction.

3) Do you think that part of the strength of this genre is its ability to hook the viewer?

I'm not sure if most of the genre hooks the viewer in the conventional sense. You know, unbearable tension, creating a driving need to find whodunnit, etc. But I think that good science fiction offers a combination of two things that serve to hook the fanbase in the longer run. Take Battlestar Galactica right now. On the one hand there is this compelling idea and broad narrative. The show is an epic, after all, in the same sense as any 1000 page fantasy novel or the latest Honor Harrington. The story is broad, deep, and actually rewards repeated viewing. There is a deep intertextuality built into the fabric of the show. As good as this is, however, if we didn't really care about some of the characters, we wouldn't watch it. It used to be that the character who best epitomized the heroic, father figure military commander was Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He made old bald dudes take a deep breath and jut out their chests in pride, while cranking Right Said Fred on their radios. Today, however, I would argue that Edward James Olmos' turn as Admiral Adama makes Patrick Stewart pale in comparison. Adama is a man who hurts, who cares, and who never gives up. You cross him and he comes down on you like God the Father with divine retribution. But if you love him, his love for you in return is deep and abiding.

Viewers sense that about Adama, just as they sense that about Hogan's turn as Colonel Tigh. What that man can emote with a single eye beggars belief. And with both of those actors, in those roles, they are so real, and so compelling, that absent anything else on the show, viewers would tune in just to see them.

The interesting thing is that the second half of the science fiction equation is also the second half of the equation for any other genre. Character brings people in. There is a good reason William Peterson was the highest paid actor on television.

It's all the same, across the board, just with a genre defining twist.

Why has Monk been so successful? The character is one reason. But also the way in which the show's genre aspect appeals to that core audience. It's a double barreled approach that reaches out to a broad enough audience to allow for a measure of success. Star Trek: The Next Generation was great at this. They had a deep, involved world with an episodic format that both kept viewers interested and made them comfortable. But they also had characters the audience truly cared about. It is no joke how devoted fans became to Data, Worf, Picard, and O'Brien. Worf and O'Brien, after seven years on the Enterprise, went on to backstop Deep Space 9, ending up spending a decade and a half in a Starfleet uniform.

So I guess what my long windedness is getting at is that the strength of any genre is the ability to hook the viewer. Where science fiction has an advantage over other genres is in the ability to broaden the canvas of the story to encompass the universe itself, and not just five houses on Mysteria Lane. Then again, it really does depend on the mood of the times as to whether audiences crave that expansiveness, or whether they have a need for something closer to home, more mundane.

4) I'm skeptical that Being Erica is actually science-fiction. In a lot of ways, this show is also a drama. Because the events in the past don't seem to impact her current life, do we know for sure that she's actually time-traveling?

It is science fiction, no question. But it is also drama. Being one doesn't negate the other. As I mentioned before, the show alludes to the science fiction elements very subtly, but they are there to find. Now I know you're thinking "this James guy, he talking crazy talk" but I'll now list three concrete examples to support my contention

1) Episode 2 - In the early part of the show, Erica goes to a reunion and runs into an ex boyfriend, who is the photographer for the event. When he sees Erica, he puts on a skeezy smile, starts undressing her with his eyes, and leering like there is no tomorrow. Turns out that Erica lost her virginity to him, and at the time he videotaped it and used the tape to humiliate her. Erica then ends up back on the day she lost her virginity, wise to her old boyfriend's nasty intent, and turns the tables. She still loses her virginity that day, but to a guy who really did care for her. When she ends up back in the present, we see the photographer talking to someone else about Erica. But the photographer's attitude had changed. He states that Erica was the only girl who ever saw through him, and actually seems remorseful about his past actions. Erica's actions in the past not only changed events in her life, but changed the character and nature of another person. Sure he was still a photographer, but he wasn't the same man.

2) Episode 6 - Erica is helping her sister prepare for her wedding. The groom does not seem to be happy, and is walking around as a drunken mess. Erica has her reservations, but holds her tongue for her sister's sake. Then Erica ends up back in time on the day of the blackout (Man! What a day that was. I was doing my DJ thing on a cruise ship in Toronto Harbour that night, and watch the sun set on a pitch black skyline. That shot in the ep really brought me back). During the events of the day, Erica's bro-in-law-to-be admits that he never loved Erica's sister. When Erica ends back up in the present, she tells her sister the devastating news, causing her sister to brutally sever ties with Erica. Erica's actions in the past in this ep did not change her present, but they did change her future. Absent that talk, she would never have spoken to her sister that way, and their lives would have careened off on different trajectories.

3) Episode 7 - This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle episode. In this Erica gets to go back to her most perfect day, to relieve that time of sunshine and golden light. But here's the thing, by going back, Erica is no longer "in" the day, she is both "in" and "outside" of the day. She has prior knowledge of the day, which means that while she is a participant, she is also an observer, and the fact that she is observing an event changes the event itself. This is one of the tenets of the principle. Dr. Tom gives her the expositional spiel on this during the ep, but he doesn't geek out on it either, so it was easy to miss. Then we see a cascade of slight differences. In a flashback, Erica's brother sits on a skateboard, rolling down a street on Centre Island, and the two sisters laugh. But this time, Erica's brother is standing up, rolling down the same road, but because he is standing and not sitting, he bumps into his sister and she fractures her wrist. This then affects the perfect game of mini golf Erica remembers, because her sister can't play, which leads the brother to act like a jerk, and running off. In the end, Erica salvages the perfect day, but has to accept that it wasn't and never could have been the same perfect day, but it was a good day nonetheless. Then, when Erica returns back, she uses that shared experience with her sister to open a door to a possible future reconciliation, which the writer strongly hint at by showing the sister alone at home, looking at a text from her newlywed husband, saying "working late."

On a related note, you are right that it doesn't seem like anything changes in Erica's present. But as I have shown above, there are changes, but they are very subtle. And - key point here - this is the genius of the show. Very often in shows that use the time travel device, someone changes some small thing, and somehow this causes effing Hitler to rise out of his grave and take over the bloody world! It's like...Jesus! Give me an effing break, will you? But in Being Erica, they don't fall for that butterfly in China bullroar. In fact, Being Erica's way of dealing with time travel is probably far closer to reality than I have ever seen.

Look...you, I, everyone in this class...as Bogart might have said, we don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. It is the greatest conceit in the world to think that if I go back in time, and put on a blue shirt instead of a grey one, one morning, that I will change the course of history. That is just not the case. Most of everything we do actually has an insignificant effect on the world. So if you take a taxi from a guy who might otherwise have had it, it doesn't mean that he will miss the job interview and commit suicide thereafter. Chances are he caught the next cab, took a bus, or phoned in and rescheduled.

The truth is, there are very few points in history where a single act can alter the course of world. As a case in point, take Hannibal, just after he had annihilated a Roman army of 100,000 men at the battle of Cannae. At that point, the future of the Roman Empire was hanging by a whisker. At this point, Hannibal had completely destroyed three massive Roman armies in three successive battles. Every time, he was outnumbered, and by the time the last sword stroke fell during the Battle of Cannae, Rome itself had nothing left to defend itself with. Had Hannibal taken the initiative, Rome would have have been left in ashes, but he didn't advance. Caution got the better of him, and thus it was that forty year later the Roman equivalent of the CIA found Hannibal hiding in Bulgaria, prompting Hannibal to commit suicide to avoid capture.

That moment of decision, when Hannibal chose not to press the attack could have changed the course of history. There would have been no Roman Empire, which would have meant no Christianity, and no Enlightenment, and no world as we know it. But then again, would it have?

How different would Rome have been if conquered by Carthage? Carthage, like Rome, was a republic. It had a senate. It was a trading power. In fact, Carthage was almost the mirror image of Rome. Who is to say that a Carthage controlled Rome would not have grown into the same empire? Who is to say that there would have been no Constantine like figure to embrace Christianity half a millennium later? Who is to say that the course history took would not have stayed on the same path, just by a different route?

And in there lay the crux of the issue. Though Being Erica doesn't explore the same concept in the manner I just did, they do explore the same concept. In the first episode, we see that Erica cannot avoid social embarrassment at her high school dance, but she does take a different path there, and in taking the new path, she changes internally.

5) Would you mind commenting on the possible correlation between intellect and the sci-fi genre?

That there is a minefield. I actually don't think there is a difference in intelligence, per se, but there is a difference in orientation, or in what Gardner refers to as the multiple intelligences. While you can't cover every viewer of Felicity with the same stereotype, you can stereotype a good swath of them. Just as you can for viewers of Battlestar Galactica, or Mad Men, Weeds, or the L Word.

Is Rush Limbaugh going to watch The L Word sometime? Probably no. Would many of us here? Probably yes. What does that say, in general about our beliefs, inclinations, orientations, or outlooks? There are similarities and patterns that we can observe which are telling.

I think it is safe to say that the best way to look at the viewer of a particular show is by using a Venn diagram in order to see intersecting elements of the audience. For BSG, many are geeks, but not all. Many are professionals, but not all. Some are former West Wing fans who have found the political metaphors on BSG engrossing and worthy of watching. Overlapping areas may signify a more hardcore fan base, but the various sections allow for a broader audience.

Are viewers of the McLaughlin group more intelligent than viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? How do you define that intelligence? In the Chronicle of Higher Education, there have been a number of articles by Ivy league professors who find themselves stymied by everyday normal social interaction. A plumber comes to their house, and they don't know what to say. Is the plumber stupid? Maybe, if his name is Joe. But otherwise? Maybe the professors are the stupid ones?

One of my favorite anecdotes relates to science fiction guru extraordinaire Isaac Asimov. Asimov, as you may or may not know, was not only a prolific polymath, but was a card carrying member of Mensa. So this guy, this brilliant, brilliant man, went outside and found that his car wasn't working. He didn't know what to do. So he called in sick and went back inside. A couple days later he asked his brother for a ride. During the ride, he told his brother what happened, and how he couldn't go to work. The brother then asked Isaac - "Don't you have a Triple-A membership?" Isaac said yes, and even showed the brother his card, sitting right there in his wallet. Only then did it dawn on Isaac what his brother was getting at.

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