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Comments about various Sci-Fi TV Series
by Roland Michel Tremblay
This report on the Net: www.themarginal.com/scifitvseries.htm
Download a doc version: www.themarginal.com/scifitvseries.doc
The big tangents or main stories going on for many episodes
There are two kinds of sci-fi series: science fiction (Star Trek) and horror (Buffy the Vampire). I do not cover horror in my reports as I am not particularly interested and I don't have much to say about it. Now, what gives me the right to write such a report? I am not sure. Since I arrived in London in 1995, after watching the movie Star Trek Generations in the cinema, I fell into Star Trek and I never recovered. As terrible as it may sound, I do not want to recover, I wish to die listening to it forever as it helps me forget the world we live in.
From there I started to record every episode of sci-fi on television and this year I am even recording them again on DVD. As I writer I had a lot of time off and so in the past 8 years I have been watching these episodes over and over again, night and day. This obsession led me to write a lot about science and theoretical physics and I have read most of the scientific books there is in most Popular Science sections of your local book store. My passion has even led me to work as a scientific consultant/technical adviser on television series, documentaries and big budget American sci-fi movies. The American dream I suppose, dreaming of it and finally doing it myself.
So now I have the right to drive my partner mad by watching and analyzing all these episodes. Now, it has become my work. It takes years to watch all the episodes of all the series mentioned in this report, and I think you need to watch them more than once to have a better idea. So I declare myself a databank of the sci-fi television series and I intend to use this knowledge to help others and even create and write my own series. I have decided to stop writing novels, essays and poetry in French (I am a published author in Paris) to concentrate on my sci-fi obsession.
If Odyssey 5 is nearly at the end of my list, or Dead Zone for that matter, it does not mean that they are bad series, only that perhaps I did not get into them as much as I should have and also because all the series in this report are of such great quality that it becomes difficult to say which one is the best.
This said, some series here have made history, like Star Trek, some others certainly will, like Stargate. By making history I mean the whole planet knowing what “Beam me up Scotty” means. About things that made it to the main stream from The Next Generation are perhaps when Captain Picard says: “Make it so”, “Engaged” and perhaps “at Warp Speed”. From Stargate, to my knowledge, nothing made it to the mainstream yet. I supposed that it will have to play on television set every day for many more years for this to happen but I am sure that eventually it will because of the quality of the show that just gets better and better with the seasons and the fan base that is already there. It would be very interesting to guess what could make it to the mainstream from Stargate, they don't have obvious clichés that are repeated at every episode and this is perhaps just as well. Overall I would say that the idea of a Stargate to the stars must already be putting pressure on the mainstream.
Other things that made it to the mainstream from other series are the Daleks from Dr. Who (“Exterminate, exterminate!”), “I Want to Believe” from the X-Files and I found myself in the “Twilight Zone”. You already have to search hard from anything from Voyager and Enterprise, but perhaps DS9 has made wormholes a normal fact of life for everyone, even people not interested in sci-fi but who sometimes sees it in the background at home. Ultimately it is not important to get to the mainstream and personally I would not try to bash the viewers' head with something at every episode just to try to get something to the mainstream. I think it is nice if it happens and that probably if you tried it would not work or it would quickly become tacky. It has to happen naturally over the years without planning.
There are some series I tried to get into, and I mean really tried, but it just did not click. I am sorry, I am sure they have huge fan bases and that they are great series, but it does not fall in my primary definition of science fiction which is science that could become fact in the future, and this needs to be discussed in the series. These series are not mentioned here. I will not be talking much about those series but eventually I might get on to watch them and comment on them if I am off work for another six months or something. For now I have to limit myself or I will go mad, or at least crazier that I already am.
There are only some series that really got to me to the point that I could not wait anymore for the next episode, I would have done anything to be there with them and become part of their team, and they are Star Trek The Next Generation. I also felt for a long time that I needed to live on Deep Space Nine and thankfully PC Games gave me that chance. Other series really made me want to see the next episode and be very excited when there was another one like Voyager, X-files, Stargate, Enterprise and Outer Limits (new version). I think that when a series can reach that point, it will never die. And I am not certain what are the right ingredients for this to happen, perhaps it is a good mixture of everything. And this is what I will be looking at below in my comments. What makes them great, what is less interesting and what lessons could be learned from them if you are working on a series yourself or will be working on one eventually.
There are many points that need to be considered. Like the actors, their personality, the writers, the twists, the humor, the locations, the esthetic of the sets and props, the big tangents or main stories going on for many episodes, how much science there is, how much magic or paranormal is used, how much of a normal soap it is (how easy would it be to get rid of the science fiction and still have virtually the same show).
I feel the actors are the first starting point for a good series and I understand it must be difficult when doing a pilot to convince the greatest ones to be part of something that might not go beyond the pilot or be slashed after the first series. Fox has been very good at slashing series after the first season and I believe this is a big mistake. At least three seasons should be given to any series. Millennium is great, even though they lost Megan Gallagher along the way, which should have never happened. Three seasons is enough to keep me happy. I fear though that The Lone Gunmen and Space Above and Beyond could have been given two more series to see where it could have gone. After all, it is well known that The Next Generation picked up only with the third and fourth seasons, and now it must be the most popular show on the planet. And the Original Star Trek, understanding their mistake of canceling too soon, Paramount compensated by bringing us many movies. The truth is that when you make a sci-fi series, you have to think long term in syndication, not about the ratings during the seasons. This is not important, it is the overall universe you are creating, from the beginning to the end, that is essential and counts.
To get back to the actors, I would say that if you are going for the young and beautiful models, it won't work. For some reasons they always lack in personality and could only convince teenagers to watch this because of "how beautiful is that guy". Look at Star Trek, none of the main characters where that great looking, but my, what great personalities. Some exceptions of course, Seven of Nine changed the ratings of Voyager significantly, but to be honest, her stunning beauty is not all that she brought to the Voyager Universe. Her character as a Borg was equally of interest, and all the B stories with her, even with a different actor, would have added tremendous interest to the series. As she often said herself, the writings for her character were just too great and it was a gift as an actor to get this role.
I personally think that older actors add a lot to the creditability of a series. Patrick Stewart was perfect as the captain of the Enterprise, anyone else and I am not certain what would have happened. The Captain of Andromeda is not old but older and he is a good balance between credibility and action man.
A series that failed to get good actors that comes to mind is Psi Factor. I don't know why but they appear bland to me and I cannot get interested in their stories. It took me many episodes to finally recognize that these actors were coming back from one episode to another. Perhaps I have not paid enough attention to them, I am not sure. Another bunch of weird actors were on Odyssey 5. They grew on me and I like them now, but it took a while. The Lone Gunmen are the perfect example of weird actors, completely different from any other series. You cannot forget them, ever. Just for that I think The Lone Gunmen will survive despite its only season.
The best ever actors to appear in a sci-fi series must be in the X-Files. Can you imagine that series without Mulder or Scully? Even their Director Skinner is essential to the series and perhaps even the Cigarette man though he became too much of a cliché as a smoker/baddy. I would be ready to bet that the main factor of the success of the X-Files is the actors that made it such a polish and interesting show. Of course, the paranormal and UFOs have always rated high, but other series on the subject did not enjoy as much success.
Another example is Katherine Janeway. If she was not a known actor and you were inviting her to your gala dinner, she would stand out because she does not look like the rest of the people. Even her voice stands out. She was also perfect for Voyager. Are Geordie Laforge, Worf, Data and Riker good looking? Not particularly, but it worked, they were great on the screen. In conclusion, choose your actors very well, don't go for the beautiful and young and even, go for the weirdos with personality, even though I would not do the extreme of picking the guys from The Lone Gunmen.
The writers are an area that has always puzzled me. Some series like the X-Files and Babylon 5 have been virtually written by one main writer or some others. Some other shows like Star Trek have sometimes has many writers has there are episodes in one season. What is the best approach? I am not sure, to be honest.
The logic is telling me that the same writers should write most of the episodes because they not only know everything and are getting the show somewhere, but also they can make the big decisions that will bring the show in totally new areas. Another problem of having many writers, is the lack of freedom of those writers to do what they wish to do (from my own experience). What is the point in getting new writers if you are telling them exactly what to write? In that case, just buy yourself a HAL 9000 and enter the variables in the computer so it can write the story for you.
This lack of freedom on the parts of the writers blocks creativity and makes them afraid of pushing the boundaries like making some actors do things that are out of character and also bring the show in new directions. Something recurring in Star Trek that many writers (even the books) are making is that Councilor Troy likes chocolate and chocolate ice cream. Worf likes Prune Juice. Well, I am bit tired of that and many new writers appear incapable of making Councilor Troy to suddenly have another obsession like, god knows, alcohol or something. Usually the main writers have to develop more ideas to give to the writers to feed them into developing these actors a bit more so no clichés or stigmas stick to them.
This said I would not want to criticize Star Trek too much, their policy of welcoming scripts from the fans has always been something wonderful even though I have never tried my luck (yet!). I don't know any other show apart from Dead Zone that would welcome such a thing. It is commendable.
For the content of the scripts now, the usual are suspense, great stories, uniqueness of scripts, captivating story lines, etc. Any literature student would know what a good story is made of, but does it work? I mean really work? In many cases it works, but not always and perhaps sometimes a great story line is not enough.
Many of my favorite episodes are often details, little interactions between actors that really grip me. Deep Space Nine is full of them to the point that I often don't care about the uniqueness of the scripts over what they say to each other in between the main events. Major Kira alone, whatever she does in whatever situation, fills the screen by her extraordinary magnetism and explosive personality. And it is well exploited in the series. Just look at the first ever episode of DS9, her dealings with Sisko, and it will become clearer. The last season of DS9 is in my opinion the best of any sci-fi series and it is often because the energy pushing everyone is heavy. Considering all the story between the Cardassians, the Dominions, the Bajorans, the Federation and the Klingons, everything going on is just a feast. Garek is probably my favorite actor of all and it is all down to his way of speaking, mysteriousness and great lines he always manage to get. Gul Dukat often come close, and it is quite impressive that they sometimes react the same ways in certain situations, as they are both Cardassians. It is obvious that they made an effort to make them similar as Cardassians, like all Klingons appear to be fueled by the same principles and laws. A lot of work has gone into this and you can see it on the screen.
Some ideas, as you can read in my different reports, have been stolen from films and other shows and many series have their own version of, for example, Groundhog Day. What to think of that? Well, if you are only going to take the idea to make an average episode, don't bother. If you take the idea to make something new and special, and add to the topic or idea, then yes, go for it. There are too many laws about copyrights stopping us to write anything these days that if it becomes acceptable to get an idea from another series and adapt it to your own to make something equally good, I welcome it warmly. Us analysts love it as we can compare and talk about it. They are all guilty of doing it, every series have taken from others, especially from the Twilight Zone and Dr. Who. I swear, I have seen those Klingons on certain episodes of Dr. Who. They were identical in how they dress, act, speak and even they have those same words in their mouth as honor and dying in battle. Thank god it did not stop Star Trek from creating their Klingons. I have seen many things that looked like Borg in Dr. Who, though it is not as obvious as the Klingons. And I am fine with that as long as you have the imagination to develop it much further, and Star Trek certainly did.
Are there a lot of repeats from episodes to episodes in sci-fi series? Nothing comes to mind right now, so I guess the writers are aware of that and stand far from it. Perhaps in the Twilight Zone there was, but I did not mind because these episodes were still great. At least there should be more to the story if you are to do the same story again.
Predictable script or plot, lack of imagination, is that common? Not really, again I am satisfied that most episodes are different enough even though sometimes I was turned off by yet another episode of Stargate with those Goa'ulds and Apophis. They can be forgiven because most episodes are different and filled with imagination.
Killing a character or getting rid of one is also the ultimate crime for a fan. Whatever survey you could demise to find out how people would react if you kill Beverley Crusher or send her on a mission forever far from the Enterprise, you will always be wrong. Changing your actors after a season or two is very bad too. In my book, you cannot be forgiven, no matter how small that main actor was. I don’t think it would have been that bad in Star Trek the Next Generation if Doctor Crusher had not been replaced by that bitch Dr. Pulaski who had everything you could hate about a character, that was too much. When I watch it again, I think Pulaski adds a lot to the second season and I would have liked for her to come back at some point or at least for some episodes, but if the prize for having her was to get rid of Dr. Crusher, it was not acceptable. For Jadzia Dax it was OK because we knew it was the last season and Ezri Dax played by Nicole DeBoer was too good to be true for that last season. No wonder she ended up in Dead Zone, Michael Piller must have realized how great she was. For Kes in Voyager, I also did not feel the loss because she was replaced by Seven of Nine. Still, I would have liked her to stay on board anyway and I am pleased they brought her back in some episodes. For Tasha Yar I could not feel the loss because she quickly came back as the head of the Romulan military. I think they must have realized that she should not have died in the first place. The way they brought her back is just not plausible though and even though it brought us great episodes and I don't regret them, such a complicated way to bring her back from the dead is perhaps not something to copy. For the Reverend in Andromeda, I am actually pleased he has disappeared. He looked too fake and was boring me with his things of the divine. If they had got rid of anyone else I would have stopped watching the show that I enjoy tremendously. The worst offender in this topic must be Earth Final Conflict. I cannot remember at which season it happened, but none of the main actors were there. At that point it became boring and I stopped watching it. The same goes for Sliders, as soon as three of the main characters left, I was no longer interested. What is extraordinary is that I was so hooked on both of these series before they decided to change the actors and not even trying to replace them by a Seven of Nine or Ezri Dax. This was inexcusable.
Doing an episode totally out of context or out of character is hard to digest at first but in the long run it is refreshing. Voyager did one where the whole crew was cruel and heartless (Living Witness, Season 4), remembered by a civilization at war trying to understand their history. That was great. DS9 had an episode where the main actors appeared without their make up and it was also good (Far Beyond the Stars, Season 6). Though I would have made it clearer that it was the false prophets that were responsible for these visions Sisko had as it was not evident at first. This idea could be more exploited in other series, finding situations where your actors are acting totally out of character. Councilor Troy at one point became a right bitch and when she was meeting her patients, she was telling them what she really thought of them, there was no better moment in the whole Next Generation Series.
The idea of a twist at the end of an episode should almost be the law. And don't tell me this is hard or too difficult to think about, Outer Limits and Twilight Zone have succeeded in doing big twists on virtually most of their episodes. Why did the movies The Others with Nicole Kidman and the 6th Sense made so many millions? Because of the twist at the end that made people want to see the films a second time. Yes, you need to view it again to finally place everything that happens in the context, now that you know the truth.
The Next Generation had a big twist in the episode where they apparently go into a wormhole and they lost a full day. Many things pointed to Data lying. At the end we understand that Picard asked him to lie in order to prevent the ship's destruction (Clues, Season 4).
I know at the end of most seasons there is a cliffhanger that does not usually work in most cases, but this is not a twist. They are actually very rare and they are an important ingredient to great episodes. Sometimes it is more like something you don't exactly understand and as the story goes along you finally get the whole picture. Time and Again in Voyager has some sort of twist. Voyager was responsible for the destruction of a world that they just discovered already destroyed. That was good. Quantum Leap mostly always starts with a twist, where Sam Beckett finds himself in an intolerable situation and he knows he is going to have problems surviving it.
The action in a televisions series is always difficult because you almost need to be off the ship or your normal sets in order to have a proper action scene. Yet, in Star Trek you have action scene when other ships attack you or suddenly you need to start a chase. Though it is always something that is said to be important, I don't care too much for action. Certainly not car chase, baddy chase, or anything like what you would find in a Steven Spielberg movie. Not only it looks dull in the script, but it translates too well on the screen. It takes time and it's boring.
Action scenes from my opinion should be an integrated part of the story and should seem logical at that point. It also needs to finish quickly and show some interesting results right after. Unless you can reinvent the car chase like they did in the Matrix, and even then I got bored when they were fighting on top of that van, perhaps you should not do something too obvious. Imagination is probably your only savior in order to make an action scene something interesting and worth watching. An action scene just for the sake of it, because you feel you need some action at some point, is bad. On the other end, you cannot go to the other extreme and have your character talk and talk without any kind of action, that is also boring. Many times on Babylon 5 I felt trap on that station and I got tired of listening to them talking for no apparent reasons as it was not getting the story anywhere. X-Files is perfect, the right balance. I heard some people complaining about Deep Space Nine, because we were stuck on that station, and then they introduced the USS Defiant and they too were going into space. I never really felt trap on that station, perhaps because they have many open sets and you can breath when you are watching them, unlike Babylon 5 where you are a bit stuck in small areas.
So I guess you still need action but a good balance of it and fully integrated to the story. Remember, your fans are intelligent, more so if you are doing a sci-fi series. Mindless action is not advised. Intelligent and complicated stories are a plus.
There was a lot of humor in the Original Star Trek but it was not funny. For example the Captain rolling his eyes on the next girl, or Spock and the Doctor fighting with each other particularly at the end of the episode. This sort of humor was better in the movies where perhaps they had the time to think of better attacks from Spock and the Doctor.
A better sort of humor in the Next Generation in the first two seasons and perhaps throughout the series is what I call Formal Humor. It has something to do with the Captain being an important person that everybody is trying to impress and especially not be caught in a bad situation that could be misinterpreted by the Captain as he is passing by. For example Ensign Gomez, all excited to finally end up on the Enterprise (and she disappears two episodes later for good) drop a hot chocolate on Captain Picard. I think it was in the famous first episode about the Borg (probably the best episode ever, Q Who?, Season 2). Other occurrences are when Picard is stuck in a turbo-lift with children, that we know he hates (Disaster, Season 5). And perhaps the best episode to show what I mean is Pegasus (Season 7). It starts with Captain Picard's day and again it is about children who celebrated Picard's day by making these ugly figurines of him and drawings that look nothing like him. An admiral calls and she can see the banner at the back of Picard. He looks all embarrassed and he says that this is for the children, he is a role model. And the Admiral answers dryly and not very pleased: I'm sure you are. Later on in the series this Formal Humor is replaced by normal humor as Captain Picard relaxes and is no longer this serious and solemn figure.
Clownesque Humor is dangerous humor. There is a fine line between a clown and a credible character and sometimes you could go too far and the character becomes no longer funny. Quark is the best example, though they never really crossed that line, but sometimes, almost. Dean Stockwell as Al in Quantum Leap is almost at that point, and it is not always funny. Quantum Leap though is perhaps the funniest show, mainly because Beckett finds himself in intolerable situations that you just wonder how he will be able to get out of. The humor here is often Quiproquo (someone saying something and you understand it differently or you don't understand because of course you were not there before you leaped in).
Harper in Andromeda is a different case, he is always funny by a strange combination of great lines and great personality. I suspect no other actor could replace him and be as he is. He was well chosen, he adds a lot to the series.
There is another sort of humor you can find in Frasier and Ally McBeal, I mention it here because it is very effective. An actor lies for some reason and eventually he has to tell the truth. The longer he waits, the more difficult the situation becomes. Many more events happen as a consequence of his lies and eventually he has to tell the truth. This is classic but it works.
A lot of humor often comes from the actors themselves and their personalities. The ideas may come on the set and I think this should be explored further. Perhaps not by doing blatant improvisations that could lead to funny situations but perhaps ideas that could come to the actors as they are working. I would tell the actors to try to think of ways to make it funnier and better and to always talk their mind on the set.
Shows that have no humor whatsoever are dry, Millennium is one of them, Space Island One is also one. The X-Files are often very serious but they developed over time some sort of cynical and ironic humor that suits the series perfectly. Mulder or Scully, as they talk about their cases, are virtually laughing at each other ideas to explain the case at hand. This is much funnier that you could think at first glance and adds a lot to each episode, these little funny interactions. The best episode to visualize this is Monday. They are experiencing a time loop and they are trying to understand or explain it without exactly knowing that they are in a time loop. Everyday they have that same discussion about Déjà-Vu and they have complete different opinions. Funny interactions take place all along the episode.
Why it took me so long to get into the Original Star Trek is because the obvious fake planets they were going to every week appeared to me to be the same one. And the starship itself appeared to be built out of card board or cartons. I feel that the whole budget for the decor in that series must have come to a staggering 2000 dollars, and I am generous. Fair enough if you don't have much money, I feel that a movie can always be made with 1 million as long as a lot of people are willing to be paid afterward and perhaps never, but there is always a way to make things look great even with a small budget. I would not even give them the excuse that it was in the 70's and they had a different mentality then. Look at the Twilight Zone, they always managed to have nice ships and nice locations. Even the planets they were on did not look so fake. TV is not theater, it needs to look realistic and nice. Then of course the actors take over and you can appreciate the Original Star Trek.
The Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine were a revolution. It looks so wonderful you wish to build yourself a house that looks just like that and live in it forever. Ok, every crew quarter is the same and they just turn things around and change the props, but it is not obvious. On Babylon 5 it is obvious. I remembered trying to find little patterns on the door to see if it still appears on the doors of the next crew member. If I got to think that way watching it, I am sure thousands did too. One thing negative about Star Trek is that same city they showed almost every time they were visiting a new inhabited planet. Whether you were on the Next Generation or on Voyager on the other side of the galaxy. Ah! and it looked like a bad model, I wish I could have destroyed it when I visited the set of Voyager. Babylon 5 created nice little CGI cities, I give them that.
Andromeda proved that you could rebuild a ship completely and magnificently. Some things we had never seen in sci-fi series and they did it well, and even better when they changed it all in the third season. Outer Limits often take the same hospital that I think was also used in Stargate and The X-Files. We know, we can recognize these things. We can accept them and live with them but you have to be careful before it becomes too obvious.
The X-Files again needs to be commended. They are probably the series that is going the most on location, and even though everything has been shot in Canada, I always felt I was in that weird American State they are going to at each different episode. Sliders are also very good at finding nice locations and you never know where you are going to be next even though they are technically always supposed to be in San Francisco. Space Above and Beyond has also been very good in bringing to us nice and poetic places. The only series were the word poetry can be applied.
When I visited the lot of Voyager a few years ago at Paramount Studios (even though it was no longer open to the public), and when I visited some exhibitions about Star Trek that came to London, I was always surprised to see how fake and plastic all the props look like. Not only that, the masks and heads of aliens look disturbingly plastic and unreal. I read somewhere that someone important in the world of Star Trek even said that it needed to be plastic and cheap to look as great as that on TV. The next question that came to mind was: how can all this look so great on TV? The answer is Panavision. Panavision, even though it makes something look more professional like a real full length film, manages somehow to hide a lot of details. You could never see how cheap the props are. The problem is when you are not using Panavision, then I think you really need to invest in your props, they need to look the part when you stand beside them in real life so on the screen they look fine.
Shows that do not use Panavision are more difficult to get into as they don't look as nice as Star Trek. Though I got used to it and I am not bothered by it anymore. The image is clearer and if your special effects and props are adequate, it can be as beautiful as Star Trek.
If your B story in an episode is boring, it shows and the episode suffers. Sometimes but rarely the B story is better than the main story, especially on Deep Space Nine. Why? Because I feel that the B story gives us a chance to explore the station and the interactions between the characters. And since on Deep Space Nine all this is very well developed, then the B stories become essential.
On Babylon 5 the B stories suffer as I am not certain if we care that much about what happens between certain characters and especially between those ambassadors from different worlds. Usually the main story is worth watching. On Lexx, it feels that there is often no main story but just a bunch of B stories glued together. The show is so wild and going in so many taboos and directions that it works fine for that particular series. Often what you see or whatever happens is of interest because the characters are crazy and the writers are mad. Freud would have liked to psychoanalyze the series Lexx, I am sure.
The X-Files does not appear to have many B stories. Because we are way too much into Mulder and Scully to be worried about Director Skinner's life. The B stories are perhaps more like during their investigations, Scully will visit Mulder and they will talk about something else not related to the investigation, family or FBI business, though it is always sort of linked to the investigation at hand.
Star Trek is perhaps the only series with very well defined B stories and they used them very well to build characters and interactions.
A great tangent happened on Deep Space Nine and it worked miraculously. The whole end of the sixth season and the last season are not equaled in any other show. The story involving the Cardassians, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Bajorans and the Federation ended up in a big war in which all these previous enemies had to work together to destroy the ultimate enemy, the Dominion and the Jem'Hadar. Of course this would not have worked without those countless episodes relating the history of all these races. Other tangents in Voyager were less successful, I never liked those Kazons and those Vidiians and I was pleased when they move further away from them in space. The Hirogens where great and frightening with their masks.
So I guess the lesson here is that if you are going to go on a tangent, like perhaps those Shadow enemies in Babylon 5, you better make sure that you can come up with great episodes to make certain it would not turn out to be a boring tangent. To create a new dangerous and provocative species is not enough, interesting things must happen.
The best ever tangent that has been well exploited is certainly the Borg. And the way we were introduced to them in the episode Q-Who? is just fantastic. I was afraid, I had never seen anything like it. I could not even believe they would go on the ship to confront them, just to find them going on with their business as usual. Everything that has something to do with the Borg, even in Voyager, has turned to gold. And considering that the writer of that first episode Q Who? does not appear to have written many episodes, it might have all come up from one lost mind in one lost script that the Executive Directors of Star Trek thought was a worthy episode to make.
Stand alone episodes are therefore essentials and can be exploited in big tangents if the success and interest warrants it. The problem with Stargate is that the big tangent was there from the very beginning as it was in the movie: Apophis and the Goa'ulds. And it got tiresome after a while. But the tangent about the Asgards was exceptional and explained the UFO and ET phenomena on Earth.
The question of how much science there should be in a series is a very good question which I am sure always pops up when they are writing the episodes. I feel you will always meet two groups, one that will say that the science will put off some viewers and the other that will say on the contrary, this is sci-fi, the fans want more science. I guess the only solution is to strike the right balance of science, comedy and drama.
Let's at least say that the most successful ever scientific series who probably launched the whole concept of sci-fi series by its growing popularity was The Next Generation. Not only every old and new theoretical concept of Physics was talked about and often the base of many episodes, but it was highly popular. So you cannot go wrong if you put a lot of science, and even exploit those hard to grasp concepts of theoretical physics in your stories, I have never heard a fan being put off by it. Perhaps the ones who like Buffy the Vampires were, but then again, this is not sci-fi, it is horror, and not very frightening at that. So if a grand-ma loves Love Boat, don't be put off if she does not like your latest sci-fi show. Millions others will, who might not if the science was absent.
You have to decide from the beginning who is your target audience and I suggest you don't try to fool us. A show that is sci-fi just because they are in space is not something commendable. It took me a long time to appreciate Babylon 5 as I found it much more about politics than science fiction, and I could only get into it once I had accepted that it was not a show that would be talking about science becoming a reality at all.
After a while I even realized that you do not need to be in space to have a sci-fi show and that is why I have included MacGyver in my list. It is about science as he always uses it in order to find his solutions. OK, not science fiction as it is more about real science, but still. In Quantum Leap, though it is very much theoretical science that is the main underlying idea that makes Sam traveling in time at every episode, there is not much science anywhere else. I love it because of the nice stories, drama and humor, probably mostly because of Scott Bakula, he is a great actor. No wonder they jumped on him for Enterprise.
It is very interesting how the shows grow in time to reflect the science of their era. Dr. Who is the leading and first sci-fi series ever (if not, well, I don't know that other series that might have come before). If you listen to the vocabulary carefully, it is completely different from today even though many of those concepts were the same as the ones we have today. They had transporters and warp drives even though they were called something else. And this makes you wonder what else you could invent to re-invent the wheel.
Andromeda in recent years is the only show that was capable of inventing new technologies and renew the vocabulary and images you see. Very impressive, and it proves that it can be done again. Many ideas in Stargate have been borrowed from Star Trek, like Tachyon particles (theoretical particles going faster than light, very useful when you need to travel in time or communicate in time), subspace (another theoretical concept of being outside the normal fabric of space) and inertial dampers (to make sure a ship could go at extraordinary speeds without crushing everyone on board and also to keep your feet on the ground inside the ship). I don't think Star Trek invented all these concepts, apart perhaps from those inertial dampers. Still they made all these concepts popular and I feel it was OK for Stargate to use them too. It is a testament that Star Trek is going more and more into the mainstream and we cannot hope for more if Stargate continues this legacy into the mainstream. These are such great concepts anyway that most likely one day they will become real science and keep those names given by the writing staffs of Star Trek, or more specifically invented by people like Andre Bormanis, Science Consultant to the series. Well, I guess I should add that Stargate invented their fair share of new stuff.
We cannot stop the course of science fiction, and new concepts need to be put forward. That is why reading all the popular science books is important and that every single new idea should be exploited. For just a little hint here of something not yet tapped into that certainly deserves it is Scale Relativity and I won't explain here what it is but you can read it from the leader in this field, Laurent Nottale: http://www.daec.obspm.fr/users/nottale/ukmenure.htm. I will just say that many experiments have proved the concept and that Scale Relativists are on the way to yet again change the geometry of space-time as Einstein did in 1916 with General Relativity, linking together the infinities, relativity and quantum mechanics in the process. Just that. And I feel that Warp Drive after that might take a new turn. And when someone like João Magueijo tells you that there is something wrong about the speed of light and that it might in fact by varying, there is something there to investigate and be inspired: http://theory.ic.ac.uk/~magueijo/.
Groundbreaking is the word in science fiction shows and Stargate, Space Island One and Odyssey 5 need to be commended for trying and succeeding, but they can always try harder. Andromeda and Outer Limits broke the barrier and brought new concepts into the mainstream. You better start buying and read authors like Michio Kaku, John Gribbins, Lawrence M. Krauss and Brian Greene (Stephen Hawking too, but not only Stephen Hawking). We need more science in science fiction!
What is magic? Harry Potter must have come to your mind. Well, something else should also come to mind when you think of magic and Harry Potter, this book by Roger Highfield: The Science of Harry Potter, How Magic really works. I did not read the book but as far as I can see the author Roger Highfield is a respected science author.
1. conjuring tricks: conjuring tricks and illusions that make apparently impossible things seem to happen, usually performed as entertainment
2. inexplicable things: a special, mysterious, or inexplicable quality, talent, or skill
3. supposed supernatural power: a supposed supernatural power that makes impossible things happen, or that gives somebody control over the forces of nature. Magic is used in many cultures for healing, keeping away evil, seeking the truth, and for vengeful purposes.
4. practice of magic: the use of supposed supernatural power to make impossible things happen
What is paranormal?
impossible to explain scientifically: unable to be explained or understood in terms of scientific knowledge
As you can see, it appears that both definition are similar and imply something extraordinary unexplainable from the point of view of science. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, for any persons who do know better, any new science would be undistinguishable from magic. Paranormal phenomena are a science with real scientists trying to explain from the point of view of science different phenomena like ghosts and paranormal activities. It is true that they have not been very successful in their endeavors (bless them) but give them another 25 years and perhaps they would have elucidated magic and paranormal phenomena from the viewpoint of science. As far as I know it goes well with science fiction, paranormal is like a science that we have not fathom yet and that we might in the near future. Hidden forces, hidden realms that are still inaccessible to us, might just open up to us eventually.
The X-Files, Psi Factor, the Twilight Zone, Dead Zone, Millennium and the Outer Limits are sci-fi series about paranormal phenomena and they are great series. I would not even create another section for these series, I would classify them as science fiction. You might not be aware, but this whole tangent in Deep Space Nine about the Prophets and their religion is filled with magic and paranormal phenomena. A race of telepaths, like on Babylon 5 and the Betazoïds, are basically things that we today consider like paranormal.
I suppose the question about how much paranormal and how much magic there should be in a series is like how much science there should be. A good balance is what is best.
(how easy would it be to get rid of the science fiction and still have virtually the same show)
I used to like to think that if you were to get rid of the science in Star Trek you would still have virtually the same show, the same interactions and problems between the characters. I no longer think like that. The science is too intrinsically linked to everything they do and what they represent to be essentially the same show without it. Even, I think that if your show could virtually be the same without the science, then why bother making a sci-fi show? I think that science should always be at the heart of a sci-fi show and that it should be the catalyst for events to come. If not, it should play a big role into solving the situations.
Special effects must always be a big problem when you decide to start a sci-fi show. Will you use models or computer generated images (CGI)? Well, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine use mostly small models but Voyager uses a lot of CGI. Could you tell the difference? No, but perhaps because it is filmed in Panavision.
We cannot say that the results of CGI on shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape are that great, but it works well on Andromeda. Babylon 5 is at the limit of the bearable and Farscape misses it completely. I have never really believed that they were in space on Farscape, the effects are so bad that my brain does not even register the images of the ships in space. Yes, it was a revolution when Babylon 5 started, there were ships everywhere, the screen was filled, we had never seen anything like it. You thought, OK, they look fake, but I guess perhaps they would never have been able to do the series if they did not look that fake, because of budget problems. So, better have bad effects and have a series, then planning great special effects and your series never seeing the light of day. On that basis alone I have decided that not so great special effects were acceptable and would not prevent me from not watching and appreciate a sci-fi series. After all, are we not putting up with the Original Star Trek with a large hand in space and Abraham Lincoln alone in space sitting on a chair? And what could I say about Dr. Who which cannot even simulate a fight that does not look obviously faked?
On the X-Files, to palliate to the problems of budget when it comes to creating space ships, they basically just show us lights and play on what is not seen. They call to our imagination to interpret the rest. That's fine, they did it well and it is credible. It does not work that well on other shows and I almost wish to suggest: if you cannot show it, don't mention it. This is TV, not a book, I want to see that damn ship, and if you use tricks like big spot lights, you better do it well.
Any new sci-fi series has no excuse though, it is now too easy with CGI to show what you are talking about and it is not as costly as it was before. Space Island One was perhaps the smallest budget series in recent years and they still managed to show us interesting things (was it CGI? I am not sure). If it is going to look like Red Dwarf, then perhaps you should not do your sci-fi series until you get the right budget. And if you do have the budget, like Star Trek, then it would be a missed opportunity and perhaps a crime to not try to show us things we have never seen before and try to push the boundaries of great special effects further away.
The power of guest stars should not be underestimated. When you are a fan of a show, every single actor that appears on that show becomes part of that show and cannot be dissociated from it. I have been known to watch the worst movies ever just because some guest stars of my favorite shows were in it, even if they were just playing small parts.
Some guest stars have appeared in many shows like for example Carolyn Seymour who plays many parts in Star Trek, a major part in many episodes of Quantum Leap and also appeared in Babylon 5. I am always doubly interested in an episode with a guest star that I know and like. I could not even imagine a Romulan woman not being Carolyn Seymour and was hurt when she told me at a Star Trek convention that she would have liked to be in the movie Nemesis. Yes, she should have been one of the Romulans, it was after all a movie about the Romulans, and she is THE Romulan.
Marjorie Monaghan appeared in one single episode of Star Trek, she was Freya in Heroes and Demons of Voyager. I was so pleased when she reappeared in Babylon 5 as Number One (a reference to Riker perhaps) in the Mars episodes. I suddenly regain faith in Babylon 5 and I avidly watched those episodes.
Elizabeth Dennehy as Lt. Commander Shelby in Best of Both Worlds and Ronny Cox as Captain Jellico in Chain of Command were such powerful actors that I would have liked to see them again in other episodes of The Next Generation. I was pleased when Ronny Cox reappeared in Stargate as the villain politician. Jennifer Hetrick as Vash in Captain's Holiday who also appeared with Q on DS9 (Q-Less) is a solid character.
Natalija Nogulich as Admiral Nechayev in many episodes was also a great actress, I certainly spotted her in the movie Gattaca, even if she was on for less than 2 minutes. And probably one of the most memorable guest star that appeared in many episodes of The Next Generation as Worf's wife K'Ehleyr (Reunion) and as a Vulcan Doctor (The Schizoid Man) and was even Q's wife in Voyager (The Q and the Grey) is the unforgettable Suzie Plakson.
I think that stealing guest stars from other shows is a great idea, go for it! And you people making movies out there, hire them because you should never underestimate the fan base of the sci-fi shows, they will buy your film just because of these guest stars.
I am also not bothered when the same guest stars are coming back to play different roles in different episodes. If anything, seeing familiar faces is easier on the audience because we are already in love with these guest stars.
I hope I did not sound too condescending and cynical. These are just my suggestions for a better sci-fi world and probably this is what the fans are talking about in all these forums. If not, fair enough. These were my opinions and I am a fan too, so it counts. If you don't agree with anything here, please contact me with a good and consistent answer and I will consider adding it at the end of this report.
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