Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Bountiful Harvest Season For Sci-Fi Nuts

It’s been a good harvest this year for speculative fiction fans as far as television is concerned.
For years sci-fi fans were starved for decent entertainment, our hope being kept alive by the occasional successful crop in the form of “Babylon 5”, “The X-Files”, “Firefly” or the odd good season in the hit-and-miss hodgepodge of Star Trek franchises (which have averaged-out to stagnation – especially since some channels insist on running them all back-to-back endlessly – I like Trek once in a while, but not that much!). Oh sure, there were bushels of new “Red Dwarf” series’ that came in from the Brits once in a while, and I’ll even give the nod to the “Stargate” and “Buffy” franchises on behalf of friends who got a big kick out of them (I only bothered to watch a handful of episodes of each myself, and while I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t disappointed either). I’ll even grudgingly and somewhat sheepishly admit I’m still on the fence as to whether “Hercules” and “Xena” had any value (again, some friends loved ‘em, others hated ‘em, and I saw the odd episode that inspired respect or derision once in a while). But for the most part, television’s contributions to sci-fi over the past decade or so have been loaded with campy, televised junkfood like “Relic Hunter” or rehashes of “Conan”, “Sinbad” or “The Beastmaster”. The formula: throw some leggy lady or pumped dude into leather, contrive a quest, and set them in the backwoods of New Zealand or Canada pitted against whatever bad guy has come up again on the extras roster. In fact, for a while there, these types of visual cholesterol were all but completely clogging the arteries of Canada’s Space Channel. I haven’t a clue as to whether it was this bad on other SF-dedicated channels across the globe. On one hand, I hope not – I wouldn’t wish that kind of waste of airtime on any other culture. On the other hand, I kinda hope it was bad all around, ‘cause then it wouldn’t mean that programming here in the Great White North was leading the world in lack of quality and imagination. For a few years there were stretches where you’d be lucky to get one worthwhile show per week. Maybe two if the stars were aligned. Yeah. The harvest was bad for a while.
But things have been on the upswing for the past two years or so. And this autumn, oh, this autumn has been a bounty for tasty produce indeed. Some series are returning, putting all their energy into raising the bar, while some new shows are hitting the air with plenty of promise. It’s not like there’s something on every night, but the average is now more along the lines of at least 2 good nights out of 7, sometimes more, depending on your local programming schedule.
Coming in at the number one position: “Battlestar Galactica” season 3. This is the best show on television. It has been since the debut of the initial mini-series. I will go out on a limb and say it is easily one of the best shows of any television genre. Ever. I could easily write a whole blog entry (and there are some fans who devote entire websites) to why this show is so great. In a nutshell: unparalleled story-telling delivered by some of the best actors around, backed by top-notch directing, production, special effects and musical score. Its leap from the inspiration of the original 1970’s Battlestar is equivalent of going from cavemen eating raw grain to modern people creating all manner of baked goods like French bread or cake or Chinese soup buns. Even my wife, who’s a loyal follower of the mainstream “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises, has become an avid “Battlestar” fan. The stories and realistic characters in “Battlestar Galactica” are so compelling that you don’t even have to have been on board with the series from the beginning – you could just pick it up on any given episode and without the back-story (although you do get a rough set-up in the opening credits) still get drawn into the lives of the people on screen. The new “Battlestar Galactica” is a shining example of how television can rise above the trough of mediocre swill to provide the ultimate in fine dining for storytelling.
I’m also quite impressed with this fall’s new network series “Heroes”. The show chronicles the lives of a group of diverse people from around the world who begin to discover they have super powers. The story lines have been solid and interesting and the cast has held its own. While my jaw hasn’t hit the floor watching this show, “Heroes” certainly has not disappointed and I haven’t regretted making a point of tuning in every week to watch. I’m eager to see where they go with this concept.
Then there’s “Eureka” a creation of the Americans’ Sci-Fi Channel that’s essentially the bastard child of “Northern Exposure” and “Men in Black”. A cop becomes the sheriff of a small town that just happens to be a genius colony. Many zany inventions toted by quirky brainiacs. Normal-guy cop tries to keep his bearings as adventure and mystery ensue. I missed the pilot, but have watched a few episodes and have been reasonably entertained. Something that I’d watch if it was on, but not a show I’ll be actively pursuing. If this degree of quality becomes the bench-mark for “average” TV sci-fi fare, I’ll be satisfied.
And there’s the much-applauded “Jericho”. I have to admit, I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of this one. It’s not because I dislike the show, merely that I missed the pilot and since then, by chance, I haven’t had time to watch a full episode. That being said, I have friends who’s opinion I respect who are giving “Jericho” high marks, so I’ll keep my mind open and at some point I figure I’ll catch it in reruns and get up to speed.
Last on my boob-tube list is the new season/series of “Dr. Who”. Now, this is a show that’s got more than a little nostalgia value for me. I grew up with The Doctor running on TV Ontario. My favourite of the previous incarnations was the gangly Fourth Doctor with his long scarf. Fast-forward many years (no Tardis required) to last year when the new series hit the airwaves here in North America. For some reason, maybe it was the portrayal of the Doctor, maybe it was the story lines, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the revival. This year is a whole other story. I’ve managed to catch a couple of episodes with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and the show has been terrific. Maybe it’s the Doctor’s vacillation between serious scientist/explorer and his tendency to behave like a wacky 10-year-old on a romp with some cool toys. Maybe the story lines are a little more interesting. I’m not sure. I do know that what I’ve seen has given me plenty of incentive to start watching the new “Doctor Who” on a regular basis.
Of course, regardless of the show in question, the real test of the truly good ones is whether they can maintain their quality and better yet, exceed the benchmarks they’ve already set and offer us new flavours, or whether they’ll tire and sink back into blandness. I’ve got my fingers crossed for all of the shows listed above.
So what are you watching this season? Is there something the rest of us should be keeping an eye out for?
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