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.

Read on…

The Cabin in the Woods – A Review

"The Cabin in the Woods" (2012)

I’ve been racking my brains, but for the life of me I can’t think of any TV series or film that Joss Whedon has made that wasn’t brilliant. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer film doesn’t count, since he was so ignored in the making of it and so dissatisfied with the end result that he went on to make the TV show. So with that sort of track record, I went into The Cabin in the Woods this afternoon feeling a little nervous.

Understand, I went into the cinema knowing only two things: that it was produced by Whedon, and that it was a horror film. Which wasn’t really a lot. I’ve since looked up the trailer, and seen after the film it does an incredible job of walking the tightrope between making the film look interesting and not revealing the twists that make it excellent.

Because it is excellent.

It operates on two levels. The first is the classic horror film: college students spending a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods, where they are set upon by various nasties. It has all the tropes of horror, even down to the roles of the characters: the dumb girl; the alpha male; the brainy good guy; the innocent good girl; and the drugged out waster.

But the second level is where it’s at: the reasoning behind everything that’s happening. It adds a witty, sardonic sense of humour and a satirical edge. It pushes the boundaries and makes old ground new again, taking old ideas and making them new in a simple yet ingenious way that most films would never think of.

The cast is well picked, with the hapless victims perfectly attuned to their roles, from Chris Hemsworth’s classic jock, to a fantastically funny Franz Kranz (having lost none of his goofy charm from Whedon’s Dollhouse series) as the stoner. In fact, Whedon keeps to a bit of a theme, with Dollhouse‘s Amy Acker featuring as a supporting character, and Tom Lenk (Buffy‘s Andrew Wells) with a bit part.

But this is more than just a fan piece (though it will certainly delight Whedon’s devotees). There’s some great storytelling here, and in the subtext a lot of very skilful genre deconstruction. It will appeal to the casual horror fan, and give plenty for us genre anoraks to think on afterwards.

I think some viewers might not be enamoured with the ending, but for me it was perfect. As the climax drew close I was wondering how they would avoid writing (telling?) themselves into a corner, and it was a delight to see a conclusion without an unfulfilling deus ex machina.

On the whole, I would heartily recommend this to everyone. Going in with no preconceptions, I came out thoroughly entertained and having had a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half. Go, see it. I wouldn’t usually say anything like this, but it’s probably the best horror film you’ll see all year.

Save Our Sci-Fi

If the future of humanity does begin with a choice, I fear SyFy have made the wrong one.

So, earlier this week BSG spin-off series Caprica was cancelled. I’m not going to spend this blog entry moaning specifically about that, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m quite behind on the series, only a few episodes in, and thus haven’t decided whether it will meet it’s potential (but rest assured, the potential is there). Secondly, there are plenty of other people across the interwebs doing just that.

No, my complaint here is a more general trend indicated in the cancellation; that of good sci-fi television being cut short without being given a real chance. Or worse, being positively brilliant. Firefly is the obvious example, but far from the only instance.

I remember when I was growing up, the TV schedules were full of science-fiction. It wasn’t all good, but it was certainly there. The Star Trek Franchise was working its way through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (not to mention several films- some of them even good). The X-Files was giving us conspiracy theories and aliens being investigated by an FBI duo with a taste for sunflower seeds and interesting pronunciation of the English language. Babylon 5 was doing something, though quite what I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never actually watched an episode. Stargate SG-1 was taking us to distant worlds through a bowl of jelly, with MacGyver as a tour guide.

And there were myriads of smaller, lesser-known sci-fi shows floating around. Five seasons of Andromeda, with Kevin Sorbo whizzing about as Hercules in space, for Christ’s sake. And five seasons of pseudo-philosophical nonsense with Earth Final Conflict (both, incidentally, mining the last vestiges of the late Gene Roddenberry’s imagination). If even these more obscure things managed to prosper, hopefully it will give you a hint of how strong the genre used to do.

Nowadays, they seem to struggle. Aside from the utter bollocks of Firefly’s cancellation (midway through one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen from a TV series, of any genre), there are a host of similar cancellations littering the path. The demise of the mutated Stargate SG-1 and misguided spin-off Stargate Atlantis probably won’t be much mourned, but back in the 2003 outstanding Australian offering Farscape was given the chop too. Since then Dollhouse (Joss Whedon’s other sci-fi project) has been given its marching orders, lesser-known but still praise-worthy Denying Gravity was denied a second season, as was Flashforward (not a patch on the book, but still better than Lost by a wide margin). And that’s to say nothing of the countless great ideas which have undoubtedly been turned down.

What I think this amounts to, in my opinion, is a shift in the perception of sci-fi. It just doesn’t seem to be cool any more. The only science-fiction series that I can think of to have run its full course rather than being prematurely cancelled is Caprica‘s parent show, Ronald D. Moore’s sterling remake of Battlestar Galactica.

When you factor in the Sci-Fi channel’s bizzare and much-documented name change to SyFy, I think we have to accept that TV studios are not keen on the genre any more. The flagship genre representatives at the moment are X-Files lookalike Fringe (which is fantastic, and if they go anywhere near it with an axe I’m going to have to resort to violence), bold reinvention of the original franchise Stargate Universe, and the BBC’s reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise (which may be facing difficulties of a different sort, before too long). Of course, you have the V remake, but I think the less said about that diluted cat piss the better.

Is there a deeper root to this downturn? Are people not dreaming of the future any more? Do we not look up at the stars and dream of what could be out there? If you look at real world events, such as Obama’s attitude towards NASA, you might think so. I don’t know the answer to that one, but my favourite television genre seems to be under siege at the moment.

Hollywood has never gotten sci-fi. They’ve made token efforts, and sometimes done fairly well, but the extended possibilities of a TV series, of a long story arc, has always seemed the natural home of video science-fiction to me. If it’s going to be allowed to vanish from our screens, I fear not only for the genre, but for humanity’s approach to the future. Science-fiction is, to me at least, imagination incarnate. It is the ultimate “what if?”. And I think we really do need that.

Maybe you disagree, but all I’m really saying here is give sci-fi a chance.