Heresy of the Week – Darwinist commissioning isn’t giving us better TV

picard star trek the next generation
Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

Which TV shows get made and which get left on the shelf (or binned) is a highly competitive affair. But in the cut-and-thrust live-or-die business, a lot of shows which could have bloomed into successes never get the chance.

For me, Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of those shows which happened to be there just at the right moment. It isn’t my favourite Star Trek series now (sorry folks, that honour belongs to Deep Space Nine), but at the time it captivated me. From about the age of six onwards I can remember sitting in front of the TV each week and being transported (pun intended) away.

But have you ever gone back and watched the early seasons of TNG? Because they’re kind of…crap. I still love them, but there is no escaping the fact that season 1 at least leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, the series doesn’t properly get into its stride — surpassing a very hit-and-miss approach in which one of Trek‘s worst episodes “Code of Honour” shares a season with the brilliant “Skin of Evil” — until the disparate strands of plot are tied together with the arrival of the Borg as a threat.

But imagine it were being made today. If we’re honest, it would probably be shit-canned after “Code of Honour” and the rest of the season released on DVD only. And in doing so the studio would have deprived the world of what turned into an excellent SF series; no “Best of Both Worlds”, no “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. If we’re honest, it would probably have strangled the franchise itself.

There are plenty of TV shows which get cancelled prematurely for absurdly short-term reasons. Firefly is the obvious example (although, as I’ve said, I suspect that cancellation may have martyred it a little), but the same is true of Dollhouse, Farscape, and hell even Family Guy and Futurama were both cancelled at one point.

This probably sounds like the unhinged ranting of an angry fan, but I think there’s something to be said for giving shows a chance. Dollhouse had some fantastic ideas which it was really beginning to explore, and there was no reason at all to cancel Farscape.

I recall a show a few years back on the BBC called Outcasts, about colonists on a new world. It wasn’t perfect, but it had some good ideas and a lot of courage; it killed off its biggest name star, Jamie “Lee Adama” Bamber, in the opening episode, as the mother of all “nobody is safe” messages. Eat that, Game of Thrones.

But it only got the one season, cancelled because it didn’t rate highly enough. Maybe it would have done in time, maybe it wouldn’t, but now we’ll never know. And that could have been TNG. It could have been Battlestar Galactica. It could even have been Game of Thrones, which has now essentially set up its own mint after being recommissioned for a fifth and sixth season.

TV is a business, and like any business making money is essential. But it is also about taking risks, and TV executives seem to have become awfully tame of late. They think in immediate, short-term scales. There are no second chances, and precious few first chances. A series is either an instant hit or it’s gone, and is unlikely — Firefly aside — to feature in cultural memories. It is either Game of Thrones or it’s Outcasts.

And looking around the graveyard of one- or two-season shows, I shudder to think what gems have been consigned by these timid commissioners to the rejections pile, with which we will never even know we missed out on.

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