TRANSMISSION, INTERRUPTED

1: Fall Out (The 2007 Year in Review)

 

Your eyes are not deceiving you – Vector has acquired its own TV column. In an era where some of the best onscreen Science Fiction and Fantasy is regularly to be found on television channels rather than the cinema screen, Transmission, Interrupted is aiming to be entertaining trawl through these sometimes bewildering waters, and one that’ll hopefully throw light in some unexpected directions. I’ll be your guide on these trips – Saxon Bullock, curiously monickered freelance writer, regular contributor to SFX, and irregular blogger with a habit of kicking the hell out of Torchwood at the drop of a hat. The world of cult genre TV is one that I’ll be exploring for as long as Vector is foolish enough to allow me, and I’ll be looking at material from both sides of the Atlantic while – most important of all – I’ll also be dealing heavily in spoilers, so anyone not wanting to have any major surprises blown should probably look away right now…

But, before we advance forward into the future, it’s time to look back at the twelve months of 2007, a time during which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres proved to once again be in robust health. They may go in peaks and troughs, but all throughout 2007, both genres have had their claws firmly into the TV zeitgeist, and show no signs of letting go. In a year of Weeping Angels, dinosaurs, unexpected flash-forwards, ageing pulp heroes getting seriously embarrassing makeovers and old-school Cylons, there was a ridiculous variety of highlights and lowlights to choose from, but if there’s one thing 2007 will be remembered for, it’ll be for the spectacular rise (and abrupt fall) of Heroes.

Over the last twelve months, Tim Kring’s comic-book inspired ensemble drama has gone from being the most promising newcomer of the US 2006-2007 TV season, to the kind of global smash that it’s alright for mainstream audiences to like. Of course, it’s also managed to screw everything up in record time with an underperforming and frankly dull second season, but even if you look at the 2007 run of Heroes’ first season (from episode 12 on), it’s a blend of storytelling that’s always had its problems. The show’s biggest advantages are its well-thought out and practical approach to X-Men style super powers, along with its fast, intertwined ensemble plot, and some of the most joyfully insane, ‘what-the-hell-just-happened’ cliffhangers under the sun.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to disguise the major weaknesses, from the wheel-spinning plots (with the scene-stealing character Hiro spending massive sections of Season 1 running in circles), to the less impressive members of the cast, especially Ali Larter as angsty multiple-personality case Nikki, and the permanently gormless Milo Ventigmilia as power-sponge uber-hero Peter Petrelli.

When playing to its strengths, it was amazing how gripping the show could be, and even the creakier patches of episodes 12-16 could be forgiven when we were presented with crackerjack instalments like Episode 18: ‘Company Man’, where the ambiguous Horned-Rimmed Glasses-wearing Mr Bennet’s past history was finally exposed, or the shameless pastiche of the X-Men storyline “Days of Future Past” in ‘Five Years Gone’, which also delivered one of the most pointed twists on the legacy of 9-11 that’s yet been seen in a US mainstream show.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last – like Babylon 5 before it, Heroes is marvelous at the build up but rarely good at the pay-off. It might reward its audience with frequent revelations rather than Lost‘s ever-expanding enigmas, but more often than not, the end result is an empty sugar rush, and a show that isn’t anywhere near as deep or well-written as it thinks it is. The rambling last three episodes of Season 1 dropped the ball, leading to a finale that was both badly staged (one thing Heroes is in desperate need of is a decent action director) and massively disappointing – and yet, hard as it was to believe, things actually got worse in Season 2. Despite the engaging nature of Season 1’s origin stories, Heroes only ever functioned once its plot arc built up momentum and things actually started happening – so why the production team though that slowing Season 2’s story to a crawl was a good idea frankly beggars the mind. Added to this, the show started hitting the reset button like it was going out of style, recycling massive swathes of plot that we’d already seen (Claire clashing with her father, a mysterious killer offing the Heroes), and plunging into new realms of absurdity.

At the least, it seems like US audiences haven’t swallowed it – the show plummeted to its lowest recorded ratings, reviews were bad, and even series creator Tim Kring came out and admitted that they’d messed up. However much we’re promised a ‘reboot’ for “Volume Three”, however, (a reboot now delayed by the Writer’s Strike), it’s hard not to think that Heroes is going to need serious help if it’s not going to end up simply treading water and running in circles to try and recapture the fresh, comic-strip entertainment of its first eleven episodes.

One of the biggest symptoms of Heroes’ success has, naturally, been the traditional “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” method by which a large proportion of the Autumn 2007 US Network pilots managed (by pure coincidence, of course) to revolve around the idea of ordinary people suddenly having extraordinary powers thrust upon them. The highest-profile of these was the heavily hyped update of Bionic Woman, but giving this particular Seventies cheese-fest a coating of New Galactica-style grit didn’t go as planned.

It didn’t help that while Michelle Ryan did a commendable job in the lead role, she was blown off the screen every time Galactica star Katee Sackhoff turned up as psycho bionic woman Sarah Corvus. However, what really sunk the series and resulted in a massive ratings dip was its incredibly muddled approach. The dark and serious outlook which worked so well for Galactica doesn’t play on what’s essentially a goofy feminist fairy tale, and in the absence of any self-deprecating humour, we got an ungainly amalgam of other, far superior shows (most notably Alias), and a production team that seemed to change their mind every week as to what the show’s tone should be. As with Heroes, a major reboot is rumoured once the Writers Strike is resolved – but with only eight below-par episodes under its belt, Bionic Woman’s future is looking distinctly shaky.

More conventional in execution was Journeyman, with Rome’s Kevin McKidd as a San Francisco journalist who suddenly finds himself bouncing across time to help people, a problem that plays merry havoc with his work and family life. Not quite the shameless Quantum Leap rip-off it appeared, Journeyman owed a far greater debt to Life on Mars and The Time Traveller’s Wife, with the deeply routine ‘missions’ McKidd carried out never carrying as much weight as the soapier yet weirdly engaging melodrama surrounding them. At times horribly sentimental and never escaping the feeling of nostalgia-laced televisual comfort food, the series did at least pull off some interesting and imaginative twists on the time travel theme (such as McKidd having to reverse-engineer the moment when he fell in love with his wife) but the lack of real inspiration meant the plug being pulled at episode 13 didn’t surprise anyone.

Fluffier series like spy romp Chuck and the near-identical (but fantasy-based) Reaper did better at carving out an audience, although while Chuck’s mix of silly espionage and heartfelt melodrama coasted entertainingly along thanks to a fine cast, Reaper’s Buffy-meets-Kevin-Smith vibe (a feeling increased by Smith directing the pilot) soon led to repetitive gags and diminished returns. For nostalgic Angel fans with an astoundingly low quality threshold, there was the hilariously creaky vampire detective saga Moonlight (a show that’s somehow escaped cancellation and built up an audience), but the finest drama of the new season came from Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me writer Bryan Fuller, who created a world so off-kilter and stylized it was like nothing else on television.

Mixing the Coen Brothers, Amelie, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, Pushing Daisies is a wonderfully bizarre blend, a forensic fairy tale about a piemaker (Lee Pace) with the ability to bring the dead back to life, and his subsequent team-up with a private detective to quiz murder victims about how they were killed. It’s even built in a well-constructed example of the traditional ‘love story that can never be consummated’ between Pace and Anna Friel, the childhood sweetheart he resurrected but now can’t touch without killing her again, and for good. What’s most remarkable about the show, however, is the way in which its fast-paced, hyper-stylised and fluffy exterior acts as a cunning disguise for a tremendously dark and tragic story all about death, unrequited love, loneliness and abandonment. Without the fast-paced humour and the atmosphere of cute playfulness, it’d be almost too painful to watch, and while the sweetness level occasionally verges into diabetes-inducing levels, the first nine episodes of Pushing Daises have been masterful stuff – so hopefully the Writer’s Strike-enforced hiatus won’t prevent the show from at least getting to run out it’s initial 22-episode season order.

Elsewhere on the US airwaves, HBO once again flirted with the world of genre with John From Cincinnati, a truly offbeat mix of fantasy and drama overseen by Deadwood creator David Milch, which asked the question, “what would happen if an official, true-blue Messiah turned up in a South California surfing community?” The kind of drama that tetered on the razors edge between absorbing and frustrating, John From Cincinnati was too self-consciously bizarre and rambling to ever stand a chance of getting beyond its first ten episodes. And yet, for those patient enough to stick with pacing that made HBO’s legendarily slow Carnivalé seem like an action movie, there were fantastic performances, some rich, memorable dialogue, and some of 2007’s most bizarre and transcendent TV moments.

While John From Cincinnati reached a premature end, the inexplicably long-lived Stargate SG-1 also finally came to a halt at its tenth season, although its spin-off Stargate Atlantis shows no sign of running out of fanbase-driven momentum anytime soon. Both shows aired on the Sci-Fi channel, whose output varies massively from brilliant to near-unwatchable – and while the channel’s December mini-series Tin Man was a fitfully watchable but heavily flawed dark fantasy take on The Wizard of Oz (a take which somehow failed to feel as nightmarish or transgressive as 1984’s surreal film sequel Return to Oz), Sci-Fi really pulled out all the stops with its other re-invention of 2007, delivering possibly the worst piece of science fiction television to hit the screen in years.

It takes a certain talent to drain every ounce of pulp energy and style from a concept like Alex Raymond’s comic strip hero Flash Gordon – and considering how ingrained in the world of cult movies the ferociously camp 1980 version (and its accompanying Queen soundtrack) has now become, any TV show was going to have to try hard to compete. As it turns out, however, the producers of the Sci-Fi channel’s Flash Gordon didn’t even want to try, instead stripping out the rocket ships and the idea of Flash being stranded on an alien planet (the whole raison d’étre of the original’s pulp flavour) and substituting a Smallville-style set up, and a version of the planet Mongo that redefines the word drab. Cheap and nasty in the worst possible way, with a bland Ming, a henchman gliding around on casters, ‘Hawkmen’ running around in flappy cloaks, and execution-by-disco-lighting, the show doesn’t even qualify as a ‘so bad it’s good’ entertainment, instead showing exactly how low the quality threshold can go if people put some effort into being truly dreadful.

In comparison to this televisual agony, even the weaker moments of Battlestar Galactica’s third season on Sci-Fi were near-genius, but despite some fine moments, the show that was once the Great White Hope of SF TV is still showing some dangerous wobbles. The third season never seemed to recover from blowing most of its budget on the (admittedly spectacular) New Caprica storyline, and followed its 2006 run of impressive but heavily flawed episodes with yet another late-season slump, serving up some of the least interesting material they’ve yet explored. From the eternal boredom of the Kara/Lee/Anders/Dualla Love Quadrangle to the dreary medical drama of ‘The Woman King’ to the teeth-grindingly awful sequences featuring Adama’s imaginary chats with his ex-wife, the lion’s share of Galactica‘s 2007 run was shockingly dull stuff, taking the downbeat atmosphere of the show and applying a sledgehammer, until even dedicated viewers couldn’t help but wonder what the frak was going on.

Galactica’s Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is refreshingly open and honest on the show’s podcast commentaries when it comes to episodes that didn’t work, and it’s been long known that the show really needs a wider canvas to function properly, with either heavily stranded standalones as in Season 1, or the full-scale serial that paid such fantastic dividends for the first seven episodes of Season 2. Nevertheless, a parade of bad decisions and unexpected rewrites hobbled most of episodes 11-20 of Season 3, with an entire subplot concerning the Sagittarons (the seeds of which were laid in ‘The Woman King’) that was supposed to impact on the finale being unceremoniously dumped, and other plotlines (such as the handling of the original Cylon version of Boomer) showing little of the thought and character that made the first two years of the show such a treat to watch.

Even the ‘death’ of Starbuck came as something of a relief, in that it actually meant significant traction in the plot, but thankfully the show managed a small recovery towards its finale. The class warfare and labour disputes in ‘Dirty Hands’ were far from perfect in their execution, but the episode harked back to the first season’s brief of taking realistic looks at the kind of problems you don’t normally see in SF shows. Then, while the ‘Trial of Baltar’ thread never escaped feeling desperately talky and theatrical, the monologue from Lee Adama in “Crossroads – Part 2” still managed to be one of the finest moments of the show, addressing themes that had been ignored for most of the season, and reviving the ‘anything-can-happen’ feeling that Galactica has at its best. On top of that, we also had the reveal of four of the Final Five Cylons, a Jimi Hendrix-driven plot twist that may have divided the audience between whether it was genius or heinous nonsense, but certainly earned Moore a salute for sheer, barmy audacity.
The lack of Cylon-mashing action in Season 3 was slightly made up for by November’s 90 minute special ‘Razor’, which packed in plenty of old-school adventure, spectacular special effects and effective character moments. Given that this was the most purely entertaining Galactica had been in a long time, ‘Razor’ was almost fast and energetic enough to make up for the fact that the much-vaunted flashbacks to Admiral Cain’s time on the Pegasus didn’t really tell us more than what we already knew. The kind of fill-in-the-blanks storytelling that sometimes blights Lost, it brought back some good memories of the pacier second season (as well as giving nostalgia freaks a chance to goggle in joy at Seventies-style Cylon fighters and centurions), but Ronald D. Moore and his writers are going to have to pull out something devastating for the fourth season if Galactica is going to shake itself out of what feels like a downward curve.

Speaking of Lost, the show that’s never quite been forgiven for being what it essentially advertised itself as – an ever-expanding, character-led mystery on an enigmatic island – also finished its third season in 2007. It’s interesting to contrast the reaction to the show’s evolution and the support it’s receiving from the ABC network with the similar ABC show Twin Peaks, where the creative team bowed to pressure to solve what was supposed to be an ever-evolving murder mystery (which, if co-creator David Lynch had his way, would never have been solved), and arguably killed the show in the process. Lost‘s sluggish and gloomy second season resulted in the departure of a lot of viewers, not without good reason, and Season 3 didn’t exactly get off to the best start, with a ‘mini-season’ of six episodes that focused too strongly on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle. Even the opening of the 2007 run was weak and badly focused – and yet, from episode 10 onwards, the show began to get its mojo back, remembering it was allowed to be entertaining as well as crammed to the brim with angst, and whirled through plots which could potentially have stretched for the entire season in a paltry handful of weeks.

The quality rollercoaster was still in play (especially in the misfiring fourteenth episode ‘Expose’), and the show has all but given up on trying to present the castaway’s life on the island as remotely realistic, but there was also a sense of momentum and progress, and an absence of easy reset buttons. Even previously dull storylines like the long-running saga of Sun and Jin’s unexpected pregnancy were suddenly feeding back into the main plotline in a way that harked back to the smart interconnections of the first season, and it all built up to a finale that was dangerously close to the best the show has ever been.

‘Through the Looking Glass’ was thrilling, violent and pitched Lost in some surprising directions, as well as pulling one of the most genuinely mind-warping twists of the year in the form of the flashback-that-turns-out-to-be-a-flashforward, showing that Jack’s desire to get off the Island is going to have major and negative repercussions. With the end-point of the show officially declared (in 48 episodes time), it only remains to be seen what the production team can pull off in the interim, but regaining the popularity of the first season seems very unlikely. A mystery like Lost was almost doomed to be a cult, rather than an all-out smash, with a structure that can only really lose viewers in the long run, and it’s also hard to tell exactly what effect the twist in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ will have on the show (although it’s alledged new episodes will mix flashbacks with flash-forwards). However, for now, Lost has pulled another major “what the hell just happenned?” moment, and when at its best, it’s reaching the kind of quality levels that Heroes can only dream of.

Meanwhile, despite all the effort from the US shows, if 2007 belonged to any other series on this side of the Atlantic, it was Doctor Who. In UK television, the influence of New Who can be felt everywhere – from BBC spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, which managed the not-at-all-difficult task of being better than Torchwood (even if it never quite balanced the emotive storytelling with its action), to ITV’s silly but rather entertaining Saturday-night dinosaur romp Primeval (the first major genre success from the network for a very long time). After a first season climax that came out firmly in favour of time travel, Life on Mars’ finale did a virtual U-turn into more mystical, ambiguous territory, but still managed to maintain a sense of surreal freedom and adventurousness in what could easily have been a flat Seventies pastiche.  Even Jekyll, from New Who writer Steven Moffatt, felt like the kind of genre-hopping, daring drama that would have been impossible to imagine happening five years ago, and despite some major issues (wild tonal shifts, improbable American accents) found new angles and twists in some very familiar material, as well as showcasing Moffatt’s knack for adventurous story structures.

Who still ruled the roost, however, even if the show itself is still capable of suddenly veering from awesome highs to spectacular lows – and nothing showcased this quite as well as the return of the Master. For five minutes, at the end of ‘Utopia’, Derek Jacobi brought the Master to life and provided one of the finest ‘geek’ moments of the entire series, as well as the joyful feeling that – as with the Daleks in Season 1 – the production team were actually getting the character right. Of course, it only took seven days to go from one of the show’s finest moments, to a cackling and gurning John Simm leaping around like an over-hip geography teacher, and deciding that dance track “Voodoo Child” by Rogue Traders would be a great soundtrack for the end of the world.

Painfully disappointing doesn’t even cover it, but while Season 3 has arguably had more extreme highs and lows than previous seasons – the biggest culprit being the dull runaround that was the Dalek 2-parter, which answered the rarely asked question “Is a man with a prosthetic squid on his head scarier than a Dalek?” with a resounding “No” – when it peaked, it was arguably the strongest material the show has ever seen in its forty-four year history.

Top of the list was episodes 8-10, with Paul Cornell’s two-parter ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood”) adapting his original Who novel into a tale that perfectly matched the emotion-based storytelling of New Who with the ‘anything-can-happen’ ethos of the traditional series, while also bringing the horrors of World War One to life in a timeslot that’s usually reserved for embarrassing talent shows. Following up this two-parter, Steven Moffatt’s ‘Blink’ was a dazzlingly constructed standalone story that flushed away all memories of the previous Doctor-lite episode ‘Love and Monsters’, being simultaneously smart, sexy and genuinely terrifying. A pilot episode for the finest Who spin-off we never had (and featuring possibly the greatest ever one-off companion in Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow), it’s also one of the episodes this year that marked a small shift away from the slightly heightened reality that New Who often deals in. Unlike most of its predecessors (and virtually all of Torchwood), it was actually possible to believe that the characters in ‘Human Nature/Family of Blood’ and ‘Blink’ were real people, and it felt for the first time like the show was actually prepared to treat its audience like grown-ups, balancing the scares, fun and adventure with wit and intelligence, and not feeling the need to play to the cheap seats with weak slapstick.

Of course, it turns out we were only a couple of weeks away from yet another “Dimensional Rip opens up and billions of CGI monsters pour out” finale, along with an almost painfully unwatchable sequence that turned the Doctor (who’d already been transformed into a CGI House Elf) into a mythical amalgam of Jesus and Tinkerbell. It’s very easy to criticise the weaknesses in Russell T. Davies’ writing (especially the way that almost all of his villains end up sounding like bad boy character Stuart Jones from Davies’ Queer as Folk), and yet it also has to be admitted that a massive proportion of New Who‘s success is down to various decisions that he made – but the question has to be… “What now?”

Davies has already stated that Season 3 was, in his opinion “too dark”, and the decision to bring Catherine Tate’s Donna back for a frankly unwelcome 13-week run as a companion suggests we’re in for less angst and more happy-go-lucky romps. And yet, the blockbuster approach to Who episodes is already starting to get repetitive, and over the last three years, the bigger, more OTT stories have usually turned out to be the disappointments. It’s the darker, quieter stories like ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and ‘Human Nature’ that people will be talking about in ten years time. Yes, it can be argued that you need the blockbusters to grab the audiences so they’ll stick for the quieter episodes, but it doesn’t suggest what Davies is going to do when he runs out of recognisable London landmarks to blow up, or when even the casual viewers start thinking: “Oh, god- not another semi-industrial spaceship that conveniently looks just like a Power Station”?

The decision to put the show on hold for a year, with three ‘specials’ in 2009, might make sense from the perspective of keeping Davies and Tennant (who’s unconfirmed past Season 4) onboard, but the one thing that kept Doctor Who alive for so long was its capacity for change, and the fact that the show simply had to go on. The main reasons its popularity dwindled in the Eighties was that the production team got locked into a specific idea of what Doctor Who was, and didn’t try to significantly change it. Now that it’s back, and such an important part of the BBC schedules, there’s a different kind of fear involved – nobody wants to be the one who killed the goose that lays the golden eggs, and with Davies arguably having the biggest profile of any creative influence in the show’s history (at the moment, he’s almost at the same level of indispensable association with Who’s success that Tom Baker reached), it looks like the BBC will do everything within their power to keep Who the way it is.

In many ways this is a good thing – even after four years, Davies still has a huge passion for the series, and is arguably one of its finest salesmen – but it’s now inarguable that the man with the most control over the show (and averaging five episodes a season) delivers some of the weakest writing, and his desire for big, tabloid-style ideas is also being combined with a dangerously perfunctory “that’ll do” attitude to storytelling. New Who has already started to self-consume and develop a sense of sameness, an aspect full in force during the throwaway Christmas 2007 special ‘Voyage of the Damned’, which spent so long pastiching The Poseidon Adventure that it forgot to include anything truly memorable (beyond some utterly hilarious Michael Bay-style slow-motion).  The top-tier villains have all been done (with only Davros due for a rumoured and probably unavoidable comeback), and while the best episodes are forging a new identity for the show, too much of New Who is simply refining and improving what Davieslaid down in 2005.

For the moment, Who’s future has never been safer, and it’s arguable that SF TV has reached a point where it’s certainly more popular and accepted than it has been in years – but it would be wise for New Who, and for the rest of the SF TV firmament, not to rest on their laurels. It’s the capacity for change, for invention, and for sheer, out-of-nowhere wonder that keeps the genre going – and the minute you start taking your audience for granted, that’s when the downward slide begins. There’s no substitute for imagination, and whether the genre continues its climb in 2008 or does an almighty bellyflop, it’ll be the level of imagination t