When sc-fi goes off the rails

I was flicking through the BSG thread (I stopped watching after the later half of series two proved such a disappointment) and it made me wonder why sci-fi can go so wrong.

Taking BSG as an example, it was a series and a half of excellence. Too many internal inconsistencies for me to worship at its feet, but still it had a gritty atmosphere, well-rounded characters and plot lines that held your interest. Then around half-way through series two it seems they had used everything they’d thought about prior to making the series (all the lore, except the discovery of Earth had been used) and they proceed to wander from hither to thither, meandering around.

I always like to think that Babylon 5 shows how a tightly plotted arc can overcome a less than brilliant show, but all too often the “making shit up” is too obvious. That’s fine when you’re episodic, but when you have an arc and the arc is central to everything, it just isn’t going to cut it. You need to know all the major stepping stones of your arc, even if you fill in the detail alter. Unfortunately it seems they ran out of stones by Cobol.

Heroes is another example in my mind. The first half of the series was mostly excellent, though a little too variable depending on character, but the show had real direction and purpose. “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” Even when it rambled you were waiting to see what was going to happen as they all slowly trudged towards this destiny.

Then they arrived mid-way through the season and the writers seemed lost from that point on. Suddenly everyone was special (so no one was) and everyone was related to everyone else. It was like a thirteen year comic book run, but all managed to happen within the course of half a season. I realise they got a longer run than they expected, but surely they could have done something better?

I recall Millennium going off the rails and I hear Alias does it too. Why do shows do this? It seems all too common in sci-fi.

It’s not just sci-fi.

I have a saying that I think I got from Ken Levine: “Serial TV will break your heart.”

But some shows get it right. I think despite its flaws B5 is the best arc show I have ever seen, mainly due to mammoth effort in plotting and plenty of fall-backs in case of actors leaving etc.

Farscape did quite well because the arc was loose fluff and the show concentrated more on character development the handling of which was much tighter.

TNG evolved at a glacial pace, but owing to that it never bit off more than it could chew.

It’s just that since B5 sci-fi seems obsessed with having an arc and bringing it front-and-centre, yet most writers don’t seem to have invested the pre-show effort required to make that work.

DS9 is an enigma for long-running shows. It starts weak and then gets progressively more and more awesome. I wish more shows ended better than they started.

I don’t think you can look at the course of BSG without considering the impact of the talk of it becoming a major network series. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of that impacted decisions made about where the series was going and how it would get there. Writing is done well in advance and history says networks force sci-fi shows to simplify themselves.

I don’t think anyone would level the criticism that being simplified was BSG’s problem, exactly. It just turned into something completely different than what it started as.

Is it fair to say that sci-fi fans care more about keeping the plot moving forward than your average tv viewer? I often see episodes of Lost or BSG that I thought were pretty good criticized here for not moving the plot forward much/ at all. Although at this point, I am agreeing that Lost needs to start answering more questions.

Not sure what impact that has on the topic at hand, but maybe it is fair to differentiate between sci-fi and non-sci-fi serials.

Simplify was probably not the best word I could have used. What I meant is that big network shows tend to deemphasize the sci-fi elements in favor of the kinds of things that work in network dramas.

I may still not be explaining it very well. I just have a feeling when I watch network sci-fi versus non-network sci-fi. Very few network shows break that mold (X-Files did, at least for awhile.) It’s like Seaquest DSV versus ST:NG. You just feel it.

BSG isn’t that much of a Scifi show as it is space opera.

Which is probably true for 90% of televised SF. It’s just a different beast…

I think that’s true. I can usually tell how the internet will react to an episode of Lost just by the focus- heavy character focus and it’ll be a collective Yawn. Lots of action and forward plot movement and it’s Awesome! The exception being The Constant which managed to do both.

BSG started as a space opera. What it’s turned into is soap opera.

I realize what I’m about to say is a horribly tired and cliched, but lately I’ve found myself genuinely wishing that Joss Whedon was running BSG. The man has a knack for making the viewers feel like they’re learning something new and exciting every episode (even when they’re not, really). I don’t know what it is about BSG, but even the holy-crap moments (like a freaking Cylon baseship jumping in right on top of our scrappy heroes) are presented in an almost intentionally mundane fashion. It’s as if the entire production is geared to make the viewers just feel… tired.

Complaining about BSG being a soap opera and then holding up Whedon as an example of virtue? Oh please, Buffy and Firefly were enormous soap opera shows. I cannot believe you just made that comparison. :P

Of course they weren’t. They were strongly character-driven action shows.

Take out the action though, and poof, you have a soap opera. As someone rightly noted over in the BSG thread, the only thing keeping Adama busy these days is playing nursemaid for the President.

I sometimes wonder if it’s really the fandom that is the worst enemy of these series. It seems like, maybe that fans of a series seem to feel ownership over the characters and universe, and so many shows seem to have a group of people out there that think they can do it better than the people doing the writing or producing.

I’ve never quite understood why people can’t just sit back and relax and enjoy a show without picking apart every tiny bit of minutiae about it. You see the same thing in other areas – just take a look at the Wow general boards and you will see thousands of people that think they can program better than Blizzard can.

There are different flavors of SciFi, ranging from the super hard to the more scifantasy types. Even the books that have a lot of hard SciFi (It tend to think of The Mars Trology when I think hard scifi) have a lot of character driven stories.

I just wonder why, if people think something’s so terrible, why they keep watching it? If you really think you (not necessarily anyone here, but in general) can do a better job, why aren’t you out there doing it instead of what you’re doing now?

Going back to BSG itself, one of the prominent TV reviewers in SF seems to peg BSG better than anyone else. He calls it a sci fi show for people that don’t normally like scifi. Read the review, and I think you’ll find a decent, serious analysis of why people do like this show the way it is. It’s a drama that happens to take place in space, like Rescue Me is a drama that happens to take place in the life of a firefighter. BSG isn’t about the technobabble or the explosions, it is very much a character driven show, and my only complaint right now is that they haven’t given Olmos much screen time, but they’ve been focusing on different people, and I suspect that will change as the season goes on.

As someone said upthread, it’s not just Sci-Fi. Even shows like Desperate Housewives and ER have suffered bouts of stagnation or wandered off the path of what fans considered the core essensce of the show. The hallmark of a good production and writing team is the ability to recognize this quickly and reorient to bring viewers back into the fold.

LOST is a great example of this. Most folks consider the first season and part of the second to be very compelling TV, but then it starts to wander, and we see where split teams of writers and divergent plotlines start to really effect the show. Now it’s generally considered “back to the awesome” in large part due to changes in the way the show was being written and produced.


I quit watching BSG. Season 2.5 ended interestingly enough, I bought season 3 (I hate waiting for the show, commercials, etc.), and I got about 2 discs in before deciding I won’t continue. It’s not just the constant drama, it’s the same old drama, recycled, last week’s drama, and it was getting senseless. Pissant little alliances and feuds and yawn.

All serial fiction eventually becomes a soap opera. BSG, Lost, Xfiles, DS9, Song of Fire and Ice, ER…ad nauseam.

Evil twins, revealed siblings, reunited parents, villains become heroes become villains, layer upon accretive layer of backstory necessary to follow the story.

It’s that or fungible episodic fare. “Tonight on Dragnet, same as last week but with different crimes. Same mugshot, different criminal.” Once you start to learn more about Joe Friday and Bill Gannon, lather up 'cause the soap’s a coming.

That and the sheer momentum of money means that successful television shows - tough to go out when they should. You need to make 100 episodes at least for perpetual $yndication.

For BSG, this isn’t minutiae that people are picking apart, it’s the overall feel of the series. It’s not, “This character should’ve done this” (although I myself have made those nitpicks, but they are generally admitted to be small things and not consequential), it’s “what happened to subplot X,” or, “If we had this big character moment last week, why are they all back to square one this week?”

BSG went from being a sequential show, to what feels like “Hey, this would be cool to do!” “Oh, yeah, let’s do that next week, how can we pound that square peg into our round hole of a show?” Sure, there are dramatic moments, but I care less and less about them if they’re totally negated next week by no follow-up or consequences.

Farscape did well because the characters grew and changed. Almost every episode was a standard trope (It’s the body-switch episode! It’s the doppelganger episode! It’s the everyone gets really horny episode!) except for a few multi-parters that dealt with the meta-plot and a couple one-offs. There was consistency, continuity and care (3 C’s!) about the show, and that respect translates into respect from fans.

Lost lost me in season 2 because there was too much audience knowledge that would never become character knowledge due to death or whatever, and too many switcheroos. Also the writing was pretty crappy. I’ve heard that S3 and beyond are pretty awesome, but I don’t know if I’ll go through the effort to catch up. Lost started to feel like they were floundering around with no real direction, and counting on the ambiguity of their meta to be able to justify whatever course they took.

If you’re going to have a show that has continuity, you have to have consequences and a solid understanding of where the show is going to make it work. Take House as an example. It has no real continuity, there’s no big arcs, nobody really changes. But that’s not the point of the show, so no one complains. BSG is supposed to have it, but disregards whatever doesn’t make the show kewl from week to week, IMO.

And if anyone’s going to bring up Buffy as an example, just remember how much that show sucked balls after season 4. If you want an example of how good a show can be over the totality of its run from Whedon, look to Angel. It started off decently, really hit its stride later in S1, and took off upwards from there.

I can see how you could make the argument for Buffy (which I loved nevertheless), but Firefly? Really? In what way was that show even remotely soap operaish?