I’m one of those people who’s perpetually behind the pop-cultural cutting edge. In fact I pretty much lurk at the blunt ass-end of what’s new/hot/now; I discover TV series years after they’ve been cancelled, I catch up on the popular movies only when I find them in the bargain bin, I’m years out of date on the coolest animanga and games. Netflix loves me; I order DVDs and don’t watch them for months. This is by choice, mind you: with a full-time writing career and a full-time job to juggle, something had to give. And I don’t mind being out of the loop, even when those inevitable conversations occur among my friends as they excitedly gab over that thing that happened on [insert show] last night, or whatever. I just smile and say I don’t watch it, and endure the inevitable looks of incredulity and pity — which I’ll admit I don’t get often anymore. My friends all know me well.
Still, I do occasionally make exceptions for movies I really want to see and games that hit my storytelling sweet spot (at the moment I’m working my way through Catherine, which is quite possibly the most mindscrewy game I’ve played since the last Silent Hill — and that’s a positive recommendation, note). I also made an exception for Battlestar Galactica‘s reboot while it was running; took me awhile to get into it, but once I was hooked I watched it religiously. When a show is good, when it does the things I want a TV series to do, I’ll make time for it.
But that’s why BSG is really the last TV show I followed — it was brilliant, well-acted and very different from the usual space operatic fare, but apparently well-acted imaginative speculative stuff on TV is a lot to ask for. And what I really crave is a good solid BSG-quality show in the fantasy vein. I’ve seen a few excellent efforts, but they never seem to last. I remember a brilliant little show back in the 90s called White Dwarf (pilot on YouTube), that had potential like whoa — hated the voiceover, but it still had an aesthetic sensibility and originality that I loved, and I’m a fan of Neil McDonough. But it didn’t make it past the pilot. And now I’ve just heard about this — Ron Moore’s attempt at a fantasy police procedural. I watched the pilot before its takedown, and it was everything I would’ve wanted to see in a fantasy TV show: clever and imaginative worldbuilding, characters who feel like people and not archetypes, and a genuine engagement with all the possibilities that magic presents — not just a twee treatment of magic as a plot device. Some cool alternate history too, and a proven cast, proven writers, all high-quality stuff. I can’t see how 17th Precinct would’ve cost much; aside from the “hovering blood” effect, it was pretty much a down-the-line police procedural, which are popular because they’re so cheap to make. But even the pilot didn’t make it off the drawing board.
I think this keeps happening because TV hates fantasy. I’m reminded of the way Hollywood treated fantasy prior to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter film adaptations. Once upon a time, Conventional Wisdom said that fantasy on the big screen couldn’t sell. It was deemed too cheesy and laughable, a la Krull, or too commercially dubious, a la Willow — which was financially successful, note, just not as successful as its producers hoped. When Jackson’s budget for LotR ballooned, there was all kinds of doomsaying; since its success, there have been several other big-budget fantasy films made that otherwise probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. A wholesale attitude adjustment. So what will it take to adjust TV networks’ attitudes towards fantasy television? If the decades-long success of Doctor Who — which I’d call science fantasy rather pure science fiction — doesn’t open doors, what will? If Ron Moore can’t sell magic, who can?
Yeah, SyFy — the same network that took a chance on BSG — has made fantasy attempts, but most of them have been offensively bad and should never have been made (link to author GL Valentine’s “Questionable Taste Theater” blog series, which I highly recommend). Last year on the Big Four we got Once Upon A Time, a predictable yawner, and Grimm — same concept as 17th Precinct, a magic police procedural, but far less imaginative (and way less interesting, IMO). We also got A Game of Thrones, which I hear is better than the books — I don’t have HBO, so I’ll get around to it when it’s on DVD — and I’m hoping it’ll make the difference. On the second-string networks we at least get some love for urban fantasy; the last few seasons have been drowning in vampires and witches and now apparently succubi. I’m not surprised; shows like this are cheap to make, and stand some chance of appealing to the Twilight demographic.
But none of this stuff feels fresh or exciting. Even GoT is nothing new — same old medieval Europe-ish setting, same basic focus on guys with swords, just with more sex and better acting than what we’ve seen before. Stick some dragons in The Tudors and you’ve got the same thing (literally; Martin’s story is based on the War of the Roses). But can a girl get some new Xena? I mean, seriously, where’s the Alien Nation with shapeshifting dragons? Let’s try Sergei Lukayenko’s Night Watch as a miniseries instead of a confusing and too-short movie. (It can come on after GoT.) Somebody give Rockne O’Bannon some cash and see what he can give the Farscape treatment to something fantastic.
What will it take to make (literal) TV magic?