OTHER SCIENCE FICTION SERIES

SCI-FI TV DOESN'T HAVE TO BE 'PRESTIGE'—IT CAN JUST BE FUN

POSTED BY: G
UPDATED: Tuesday, June 20, 2017 11:38
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Tuesday, June 20, 2017 11:38 AM

G

... fully loaded, safety off...


If I had more time I might watch more of these shows, but busy. I like the quote about a couple of them: "Wait, you think. Isn’t that just Firefly with a Canadian accent?" Hello, Nathan? Jewel?
I'm a sucker for any ship show - not that kind of ship, a space ship. I caught a bit of a Dark Matter ep - didn't do it for me, but then Firefly didn't either for the first 3 eps.

https://www.wired.com/story/in-defense-of-commodity-sci-fi/

YOU LIVE, IT’S true, in a Golden Age of Television, and at least some of that gold comes in the form of lucky coins from leprechauns that reanimate unfaithful dead spouses. Which is to say, some of the most premium-est of premium TV right now is genre—science fiction and fantasy. It’s American Gods, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Westworld, The Leftovers. Not long ago, Mad Men got the recaps, after-shows, and literary-minded critiques; now, those hosannas go to squabbling deities, swords-and-sorcery, zombies, killer robots, and raptures.
It ought to be a fan’s dream. Yet, the relentless grimdark of those shows, and the grinding search for Meaning, can be numbing. So, a recommendation: Turn your attention toward slightly less golden TV.
Dark Matter, Wynonna Earp, and Killjoys, all of which are revving up new seasons on Syfy this month, are just the beginning. Travelers, Colony, The 100, Stitchers—up and down the basic-cable listings, these shows are straight pulp nerd-dom. “We’re unabashedly genre, committed to the source material, not trying to be for everybody,” says Emily Andras, showrunner on the wonderfully daft Wynonna Earp (she’s a descendant of the famous gunfighter who kills demons with a magic gun [Earp, not Andras]). Andras suggests calling it “batshit genre,” but I have a different term in mind: commodity sci-fi.

You’re not going to mistake these shows for broadcast network fare like Blindspot, or even prestige-lite like Syfy’s high-end, glossy The Expanse. They have smaller sets, more modest special effects, and fewer location shoots. “We’re not necessarily a mainstream, genre property—the codeword I’m trying to dance around here is budget,” Andras says. “We’re never going to have the budget of a Walking Dead, though I’d happily take on that challenge. We can’t have a battle with 50,000 zombies, so it better be funny, or make you feel something, or have a personal perspective.” On her show, that means a commitment to a strong relationship between the main character and her sister, progressive and LGBT-friendly politics, and a wholehearted embrace of weird Western horror. A 10 PM Friday night timeslot lets you get away with that.

“Premium” shows like Game of Thrones might spend $15 million on an episode; commodity sci-fi spends around $3 million, maybe less when you take into account tax credits for shooting in Canada. A lot of them shoot in Canada. Are these shows for you? Depends. If, when you watched Doctor Who, you cared that the walls of the Tardis somtimes wobbled when the door opened, maybe not. And that's a shame, because you're missing the crux of the shows: story.
Dark Matter and Killjoys both follow crews of spaceship-flying antiheroes—amnesiac criminals in the former, working-class bounty hunters on the latter—struggling against various interplanetary conspiracies. Wait, you think. Isn’t that just Firefly with a Canadian accent? Well, yeah, but also: no! For one, that trope goes way back. (What, no one remembers Blake’s 7?) But for two, the trope-y-ness works, because in the right hands, a “trope” is just a structure for making stories you care about. “Pulp allows us to have extremes of emotion and extremes of action to the point of ridiculousness,” says John Rogers, who ran TNT's caper-squad drama Leverage and biblio-tech fantasy The Librarians. “If it’s a little close to coming over the top, I’d rather have that than a lot of prestige dramas where you know exactly how every scene is going to end.”

With commodity sci-fi, the pleasure comes both from meeting expectation—and defying it. You're gonna get a body-swapping episode, a Groundhog Day episode, an everyone-vanishes-but-one-character episode. A show with an expensive space battle early in a season is pretty much guaranteeing a late-season episode with two characters working out emotional issues while trapped in a turbolift for 44 minutes. But for every predictable beat, the grace notes are there, too. “I’m fine borrowing a trope from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the Aliens franchise or classic Star Trek, because there’s always a way to do it in a new way,” Andras says. “The thing about genre that you can’t do in a mainstream production is that it’s so out there, you really are able to tell stories about what it is to be human. Something that would feel self-conscious on Madam Secretary feels less so on Wynonna Earp.”
And it works. Commodity sci-fi is like pop music—it doesn’t always have emotional resonance, but it can. An actor’s performance might bolster a dopey story. It might be a twist in how the story gets told. “If you have a show that allows itself to be funny or whimsical or adventurous, when I slide the knife between your ribs for an emotional beat, it fucking hits you,” Rogers says.

Sometimes the simplest ideas become something more. Over the course of Orphan Black’s first season it became clear to viewers—and so probably to the writers, a few months earlier—that the show had something special in lead actor Tatiana Maslany’s ability to play multiple, distinct characters. Maslany made Orphan Black, now in its fifth and final season, transcendent. The best commodity sci-fi has one note per episode that’s the best thing you ever saw. It might be small: a joke, a cool concept, whatever. But it’s there.
If you want to draw the most cynical lines possible, you're looking at separate worlds here—Syfy is undercutting high-cost awards bait with lower-rent fun. But while the fun might not attract as many viewers, the million or so people who watch every episode of a commodity sci-fi show and learn the lines by heart love them, and do so intensely. As do the creators. “Knowledge of the kind of thing you’re making should not affect your investment in the thing you’re making,” says Marc Bernardin, a longtime entertainment journalist now writing for the upcoming Hulu show Castle Rock. “I’m sure the guys making massive genre prestige TV love their stuff, but I don’t know if they love it more than someone making it on a shoestring budget.”

Don't worry, this isn't a binary. You can keep watching American Gods. The block of Canadian cheese Syfy sells every Friday night is great on its own, but it doesn’t detract from the higher-budget and also very good Expanse. Still, the search for human connection and meaning doesn’t have to take you all the way to Westeros. It can come packaged with talking spaceships, ray guns that go pew-pew, and even the occasional punchline."

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