The Alliance Wore Gray, Joss Wore Brown

I probably became disenchanted with scifi(/fantasy/horror) TV in 1997, when Chris Carter began his serious neglect of The X-Files with a very unsatisfying cop-out resolution of the 4th-season cliffhanger.  I have long been dissatisfied with the episodic, itinerant nature of TV writing that results in discontinuities and inconsistent quality.  I am not insensitive to the pleasures of following beloved characters through the misadventure of the week; indeed, this has been my only reason for keeping up my investment in the various Star Trek series.  I guess I just want TV to be smarter, and it appears that the only way to ensure that is to concentrate creative control, i.e., get an auteur.

1997 also marked the debut of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, notably created, coddled, and championed by Joss Whedon.  I didn’t know who Whedon was at the time, so I couldn’t appreciate that he had written the Buffy film and was trying to achieve with the series what he could not with the film (the idea that a TV show could be cooler than a movie was unknown in the 20th century).  I don’t apologize for taking one look at Whedon’s series, carried by UPN (of camp-fantasy Hercules and Xena fame) and populated with beautiful twenty-nothings posing as high schoolers, and dismissing it as probably funny but not worth my time.

Later, as the series stretched its legs and Whedon subjected his characters to ever sharper twists, I became aware of critical praise for Buffy, both from the media and personal acquaintances.  Of course, if Buffy were in fact a series of such dramatic integrity as to reward an investment of my time, I should like to have viewed it whole, from start to finish, and boxed DVD sets of complete series were (and remain) financially intimidating to the casual viewer.  When the series finally concluded in 2003, a more avid advocate obtained the DVDs and extracted a vague pledge from me to watch them, but by then I had become a parent, reducing my leisure time by a factor of twenty.

Since then, my leisure time has become more flexible, and NetFlix and BitTorrent have combined to make catching up on TV and movies much more quick, convenient, and cheap.  I still haven’t taken the plunge on Buffy, but I have been prodded by influences even more convenient and cheap to invest my time in Whedon’s most recent series Firefly, as well as the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica series.  The writing on both shows is impeccably consistent, and the "off-key" character moments are tolerably low.  The actors are still dishy, but at my age that’s no longer an obstacle.

What I find fascinating is the evolution of the relationship between television creators, distributors, and consumers.  Ten years ago, when the bulk of online fandom was restricted to Usenet, I remember the fans of Northern Exposure (another series marred by the creators’ refusal to honor the integrity of their vision and wrap the series up when Fleishmann departed Cicely) struggling to convince CBS to renew the show with a "grass-roots" letter-writing campaign.  I was struck by the organizers’ then-novel suggestion that fans volunteer consumer-demographic information along with their pleas to support the artistic merit of the show.

But even as television has gotten inarguably smarter and creators have achieved greater autonomy, competition has become even fiercer.  Whereas Buffy suffered a cancellation by one network only to be picked up by another, it had a multi-season run before the suits got cold feet.  Firefly, launched just five years later, was broadcast on differing nights and out of sequence, resulting in a disappointing 13-episode run before being cancelled.  In both cases, disciplined fan response to cancellation has met with success—Buffy was picked up by another network, and Whedon was allowed to resolve some open questions from Firefly when he made Serenity.  It no longer suffices to write letters; the Firefly producers cited cash offers towards hypothetical "futures" in DVD releases as evidence of the fan support necessary to solicit the studio backing for Serenity.

I was still plowing through the first season and a half of Battlestar Galactica when Serenity hit the theaters, and I (correctly, it turns out) resolved to watch all of Firefly first, and so it was that I had to see Serenity at the last theater in the county still showing it on the same day that everyone (who doesn’t work for Microsoft) was queueing for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  My spoiler-ridden comments on can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment