There’s been some indisputably excellent storytelling happening on television. There are programs with the kind of depth and compelling characters that I would be hard pressed to find in novels, and I’m the kind of guy who nearly always says: “Meh, I liked the book better.” Sometimes these programs run for many seasons. Other times, despite being phenomenal shows, they get canceled. Sometimes it comes down to production costs. Other times, they don’t really find an audience until after they’ve been cut, but it’s too difficult to bring them back for one reason or another. I think sometimes people see a promotional advertisement that only scratches the surface of the program, and they make a snap judgment, deciding it isn’t worth their time. Let’s see if maybe there’s something these two examples have in common.
A confident and capable man is thrown into an immediately confusing and violent situation. After his initial shock, he tries to get an explanation about the attack that’s raging outside. The people he next meets are strangers, and they don’t trust him. They suspect that he’s a spy, despite his best attempt to persuade them that he’s scared and out of his element. They subdue him and lock him in a cell, where they arrive to confront him after the threat of the attack is over. Unfortunately for him, they have incarcerated him alongside another prisoner, one who is also a stranger to him and believes him to be a deserter from her military unit, or possibly someone undercover sent to see whether or not she will submit to interrogation. Sound interesting? If someone described this to me, I’d probably guess it was something new from the makers of the Bourne movies or J. J. Abrams, akin to his popular show, Alias. Here’s another…
An aging warhorse is sent to oversee a military museum, where his tactical talents and leadership ability are set aside for bean counting and spit-and-polish inspections. His second-in-command, is content to drink away his remaining service years until he can slip into retirement, where he hopes to smooth things over with his wife. She’s never liked taking a back seat to his career, but he’s a stubborn old goat, like his friend and commanding officer, and he’s just as married to his duty as he is to her. Things go to hell. They find themselves, and their crew, the last hope against a sinister threat to eradicate civilization. The enemy is calculating, ruthless and adept at infiltrating and subverting the heroes’ society. What’s almost worse, behind the military struggle are politicians with their own agendas for grabbing more power and influence, often undermining the work the military is struggling to accomplish. Civilians are often caught in the middle, used for dueling factions’ ambitions. I might add, that this gem was a critically acclaimed series before it wrapped up after its fourth season. Sounds like something from Tom Clancy, right? Read on to find out…
The first description is actually for the pilot episode of a groundbreaking science fiction show, Farscape. I just watched the pilot episode with my family, new to my son but not me and my wife. If you haven’t seen it because spaceships and aliens turn you off, I advise you to give it a shot anyway. You can find it on Netflix, where we will be continuing to watch it. The main character is an American astronaut who is swept to another unknown part of space during a test flight. He looks like the enemies of the prisoners on the ship where he’s captured. All of the prisoners are very alien and very skeptical of his claims to be from the planet “Erp”, as one of them mispronounces it. He is a long, long way from home.
The second is a description of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Edward James Olmos plays Commander Adama, leading the last surviving humans in a desperate attempt to escape continued genocide by a robotic race, the Cylons. You might remember the original series, and enemies, from the original show during the late 1970’s. With the new series came a new and more threatening version of the Cylons, since some are disguised in human form, some even replacing human counterparts, keeping tensions high throughout the program. Time Magazine called it the best program on television in 2005, not just the best science fiction program on television.
Farscape was made, my son enjoyed pointing out, before my wife and I got old and married. The Jim Henson Company provided makeup, creature and prosthetic effects, and it’s very easy to get caught up in the plight of the characters and the isolation of the lone human, John Crichton. The way he’s humored as a primitive among his fellow fugitives, especially with the knowledge that he’s among the best and brightest from Earth, earns him even more sympathy. Battlestar Galactica appealed to me as a fan of military fiction as much as it did as a fan of science fiction. The everyday soldiers’ and crewmen’s points of view were explored as much as the Commander’s and politicians’. I eagerly slipped into the desperation of the human society’s flight and celebrated every small victory over the robotic nemesis. I loved some of the characters and loved hating others, though there were plenty in between that earned sympathy in some episodes and ire in others. They reminded me of the very human characters I usually like better in books.
Do yourself a favor and check out either, or both, of these shows. In the end, they’re just brilliant television, science fiction or not. If you like them, it might open you up to a variety of other great programs you missed when they first aired.