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Apropos my previous blog posting, I am simultaneously amused and perplexed by the number of people who, being afficionados of [X], read a statement of the form "I do not like [X]" and parse it as "[X] is bad".

(Tag with: collective logic FAIL, what are they teaching them these days, death of western civilization, film at 11, etcetera.)

Mind you, it's given me some food for thought. In particular, I'm trying to figure out precisely what it is about the structure of small-screen entertainment that is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera; and why SF on TV is so generally identified with that form.

I suspect, after sleeping on it, that in large part it boils down to the cost structure of network TV: to the obligation on the producers to deliver captive eyeballs to advertisers. This is guaranteed to fuck with dramatic structure, world-building, and characterization — especially when they mess with the plot to reduce audience leakage due to channel-hopping during intermissions — and it has long-term implications for written fiction too, as the uptake of ebooks and alternative delivery models based on the internet progresses.

Consider a script. A script consists of pages each of which represents one minute of on-screen action. It typically runs to 250 words, most of which are dialog. A 42 minute TV show is 10,500 words (a novelette, in fiction-not-script terms), but breaks down into four scenes, each of which needs a near cliff-hanger ending (prior to the advertising break, to keep the viewers wanting to see more), and a restart at the beginning (to drag in new viewers who have channel-hopped over from a less compelling production). Of each roughly 2,500 word scene, then, about 250-500 words will be wasted (dramatically speaking) on reestablishing the action, and the last 500-1,000 words goes on setting up a mini-climax (except in the first and final scenes, where you need a setup and a climax for dramatic, not advertising, purposes). Thus, the 10,500 word script actually contains about 7,000-8,000 words of meat, or 28-32 minutes of non-repetitive on-screen action to propel the story forward. (As a reference point, a 8000 word short story, to an average reading speed of 350 words per minute, takes 22 minutes to plough through. I'm ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn't belong in a script.)

Here's the rub: the ideational density of a TV or film production, to a viewer experiencing it in real time, is lower than that of a work of written fiction is to a reader — an hour of TV with ads (and spurious scene-based setup/teardown) is equivalent to 20-25 minutes of written fiction. To keep the viewers from getting bored, it needs to add eyeball candy of some kind. What pushes primate attention buttons? Sex (hot actors) and bright colours and loud noises (explosions in spaaaaace!). These are low-level hard-wired stimuli that we can't easily ignore: if we could, we wouldn't be human. So in it goes. But there's an arms race going on: every other series on TV is doing the same thing, so our series has to be sexier and flashier than theirs if we're not going to bleed audience share.

Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed — not stroked lightly, but mashed hard by an insensitive thumb driven by advertising sales — and that's when they'll start leaving in droves. But most people have been trained to accept lots of advertising and the classic four-part structure of the ongoing TV drama episode from an early age. (Not me. Due to an accident of childhood, I watched virtually no commercial TV, and didn't have access to a colour TV or a video recorder until I was in my 20s. Yes, I am an alien.)

Two questions arise:

Firstly. Is it possible to do space opera on the small screen properly, if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure? (I'm purposely ignoring the BBC drama department in this context because (a) their programming schedule isn't too dissimilar to commercial network TV, and (b) they're not notably into space opera.)

Secondly. If written commercial fiction succeeds in moving online, are we going to see a breakdown of the 80-year-old contractual boilerplate that bans in-novel advertising: and if so, what are the literary consequences going to be? We know what they look like in dead tree form, and it ain't pretty — what I'm interested in is the electronic remix, because it sure as hell won't stop at static ads: we could see targeted audience demographic product placement in novels, tailored to the advertising profile of the particular reader (so that the product in question changes depending on who's reading the ebook).

112 Comments

1:

I see what you're saying, and you might be on to something - not just with SF television either. Comedies seem to be about the most successful for the TV format, since you've just got to deliver humor for brief periods and can run each segment as a joke.

That said, I think the quality of TV SF will improve in the future. Costs of good world building and effects are coming down, so eventually they won't be much different than any other show with a couple sound stage sets. This will allow networks to experiment much more.

As for the experience of watching TV, your own situation is probably a little extreme but you're right that there are issues with sitting through a first run series. I find it vastly preferable to watch a series on DVD or online later, since you can skip commercials and watch 3 episodes in about the length of a movie. The story is much more coherent when it isn't chopped up every ten minutes and split apart by a week. Unfortunately that sort of view doesn't count for ratings, so the shows I like get canceled.

Regarding advertising, perhaps online fiction will be similar to webcomics. From what I've seen they tend to just put ads around the content and sell merchandise. I'm not sure how well that would work for other media though. How realistic would it be for you to serialize a novel over the course of a year, with ads on your website, some t-shirts, and then a collectors edition printing when it was all done?

2:

I know that I sure as hell wouldn't stand for any moving, distracting ads in my books. The ads have to match the medium at some level. Banner ads for a web page look a bit like content, billboards look a bit like roadsigns.

I think whoever tries this will fail badly. Or someone will figure out how to strip the ads from the book and it won't be a problem.

3:

I agree with Andrew G, once a series reaches DVD it becomes vastly more enjoyable. A few years ago the first few episodes of Battlestar Galactica were shown on ARTE, it was like a highly complex and enjoyable movie since arte is more or less commercial free. But when later I saw episodes on other channels, with commercials and in one episode increments i couldn't att all connect. I think one of the real strong points of series is that they can involve really complex story lines and numerous characters, which brings it much closer to novels than films, but this is lost due to the compartmentalization of the story. It's like Charlie's books, they are best read in one go ending bleary eyed and exhausted, a chapter a day or week would be a horrible torture and in the end would take all the enjoyment out of it.

The only SF series (written) that seems to really work in a same format as SF on TV is Perry Rhodan, which is going on for several thousand episodes.But then there are no ads or commercials.

As for on-line fiction, well there would be some real potential there, for the semi subliminal advertising type of things. Put ads around the object tailored to a specific part of the story/text. The written word has a really strong influence, read about yawning and most people yawn, read about a scene where the characters interact in a bar, around some drinks and the notion will just as much appear in the concious and unconscious mind. Imagine reading Dune with Coke banners all over the screen.

4:

Wasn't the tele version of Dune a quite good space opera adaptation (bar the shonky acting in parts?)

5:

Apropos my previous blog posting, I am simultaneously amused and perplexed by the number of people who, being afficionados of [X], read a statement of the form "I do not like [X]" and parse it as "[X] is bad".

I too am simultaneously amused and perplexed at the number of bloggers who, upon making overgeneralizations about something and being called on it, try to dial back with a 'You didn't really understand me.'

6:

It probably bears repeating at this point, but: (a) I hate advertising in general, and (b) there's boilerplate in my publishing contract that forbids in-book advertising, this boilerplate is industry-standard, and it would take a lot of work to reverse the position.

To give you an example of how unusual it would be, a year or so ago Orbit wanted to start cross-marketing between similar authors, i.e. including the first chapter of someone else's books on the blank pages at the end of the book block. They had to get permission and a legal waiver in each case, and they went about it very cautiously -- in my case, I got a preliminary phone call from my editor, asking how I'd feel if they asked permission to bundle a chapter from Ken MacLeod's next novel at the end of one of my books. (I said "yes" because I figure free samples are in a different category from regular advertising, and I suspect most readers who'd plough through one of my novels would like Ken's, and vice versa.) For lots of novelists, in-book advertising is a third rail topic. Whether it remains so in 20 years time ...

7:

Total: your reading comprehension fly's undone, metaphorically speaking.

To quote myself:

I have a confession to make: I hate Star Trek. Let me clarify: when I was young -- I'm dating myself here -- I quite liked the original TV series. But when the movie-length trailer for ST:TNG first aired in the UK in the late eighties? It was hate on first sight. And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television.

Where in there do you see a declaration that Star Trek is bad?

Hint: you don't. What you see is me saying that I hate Star Trek. Which is not the same thing at all. It's a description of my state of mind, something of which you have no first-hand experience.

Your reading comprehension sucks.

Now that's a statement of the form "[X] is crap"!

8:

Interesting. I've got a lot of paperbacks with advertising for other authors at the back. It seems like it was more common in the past, though. It seems like it was pretty standard in the 50's and 60's to include a price list and an order form at the end of a novel. I'd assumed it died out because they realized that those prices got out of date.

I wonder if this is something that differs between the US and UK?

The notion of contextual product placement scares me. That's actually changing the content - which could affect the work itself. I could literally end up reading a different book than my wife does. Banners or insert pages with advertising wouldn't be as bad, because they're easier to mentally filter out and don't change the content itself.

We have problems figuring out what the original Shakespearian plays were - lots of different versions that all date from the same time. That was without intentional changes to customize advertising. We could end up with a situation where future generations can't figure out what the original text of a novel was.

9:

OK. . . if Space Opera is fantasy by another name.

And if fantasy, even in its modern commercial form, can be traced back very easily to the sagas and legends of earlier times (Tolkien being a keen fan of old myths and so on).

And if those cycles of myth and legend were the result of what in Anglo-Saxon was called 'opening the word-hoard'. . .

Then, no 'telly' can't do this sort of thing properly. TV is a visual and ultimately sub-linguistic medium; the legends of any society, be they chthonically inherited from the past, or of more recent invention, are the result of a society talking to itself, and I mean talking - i.e. deploying the human capacity for language for the purpose for which it was intended; maintaining the integrity of the social group.

Could television ever be said to maintain the integrity of the social group?

10:

Erik, ads for other books, in the back of books -- after the novel is over -- are legit, and permitted in contractual boilerplate. What's verboten is ads inserted in-line in the text; either boxed in, or worse, inserted into the novel. (I gather one German publisher used to run ads for a local brand of soup in translated novels, by inserting a three-page scene in which the protagonists of the novel all sit down for a nourishing soup dinner, usually in the middle of the climax: merely changing the names to fit the book -- they got sued into a smoking hole in the ground when the English language publisher heard about it.)

Dr X: I refer you to the classic Four arguments for the abolition of Television by Jerry Mander.

11:

As regards the responses to the "I don't like [X]", I think some people who like X can take that as saying they don't have good judgement, or as a challenge to their tribe that must be countered (we're still a pretty tribal war-like species, sadly....). So you don't like B5; I do. Shrug. Some people don't like Malt Whisky. Shrug.

As for TV, have you heard David Simon talk about The Wire and HBO? My take is that he was backing up what you are saying. To have a serious/challenging series you need a company that *isn't* looking at the viewing figures or the dramatic cliff-hanger. That meant a different model, and media execs with courage and an understanding that they were working in a different model. (I'm waiting for the first series that is cancelled first way through the first broadcast of the first episode as the interim on-line Nielsen Ratings are awful.) There are few models where that is the case, but there are some.

As for books and advertising, what about product placement? "As the newsreader rattles off the election results, Charlie picks up his $MOBILEPHONEBRAND and throws it at his $TVBRAND TV." Is there any of that already?

12:

Kevin: re product placement, see #10.

13:

One of the nice things about technology is that it cuts both ways (if you can be bothered). Websites may be designed to be infested with ads but use the right browser and plug-in and you just don't see them.

And so for ebooks I feel - use the right device and software and you won't notice the crap. Of course if you're daft enough to buy a proprietary device crippled by DRM then you'll just have to suffer.

14:

One perennial obstacle to doing small screen space opera properly will be those invidious things called actors. They have contracts, they have to be paid, they may become unavailable due to death or a better offer from another series. Many of the cludges of Galactica and other shows cited in your earlier post were due to a need to lever in a scene for X actor who contractually has to have Y scenes in each series, regardless of how well that actually fits into the story. The story suffers as a result.

I say "other shows" in all fairness, but Galactica stands out in recent memory because the producers were so obviously throwing darts at a printout of the cast to see who was a cylon and who wasn't, plot be damned.

I therefore make the prediction that IF the proper small screen space opera ever does come to pass, it will be a cartoon or with CGI-generated actors, a bit like the remake of Captain Scarlet.

15:

@Red Deathy: Yes The dune mini-series were quite good, better anyway then the 1984 movie that only had some fame due to the director. I only saw it on dvd, I can't possibly say how much constant interruption would have influenced it.(Badly of course, yet to what level...)

But since Dune is a great work of SF, one of the best. SF series written from a "fresh" point of view don't have the fan base and cultural baggage of series that where adapted from another media, which creates a ready viewer base.

I suppose that it is a question of fan base, fans expect a lot, but they put up with a lot too. Once created the fan base can be exploited, it is a bit like agriculture. The ground gets old so you have to renew/refresh it, but some of the plants don't survive the transition, Charlie lost interest with the next generation. If you launch a new series/plant a new crop, you prepare the soil with a massive media campaign beforehand. Either way, once the fanbase/crop has taken root, you can collect the best produce/plant advertising.

The metaphor clearly needs work, but I am metaphorically disabled. But is about fanbase manipulation, the pilot of a series is usually without commercials, the first book of a series is often the best.

16:

Wasn't there a novel some time ago where the author signed a contract in advance with some big company (Bvlgari?) and wrote the novel with ads incorporated from the start? I seem to remember reading about it, but can't recall how it turned out in the end.

17:

An alternate approach is patronage. Tech billionaires have bought sports teams and fund large personal charitable foundations, why not an online series? Dear creatives, I have X billion. Here's X million, go and create me something interesting.

Perhaps the intent of the creatives would be to produce something akin to the Linux sales model. The IP rights are under creative commons licence, anyone can rebroadcast it and they sell content related to it. It would be a unique selling point when pitching the show to potential broadcasters, this show is free to air, please enjoy your increased ad revenue margins.

The production is not so much about money but about the 'fame and prestige' of doing it. Maybe they can make some money on the side content, maybe not. I wonder what the profit/loss position on Energia's 'Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning' is like?

18:

Ben: a good far-future SF series does exist on TV. It's called Futurama. Funnily enough? It's an animated series ...

19:

Charlie@12 - Thanks. Crossed postings. Interesting. I don't suppose you have any more pointers?

I'm also intrigued if any "fixed" product placement has been done. Eg Ian Rankin/Jack Harvey suctions on ebay for which model/brand of the mobile phone his hero/heroine will use. Best bid is then written into the book from the start. (Sort of like charity auctions some authors/cartoonists do for walk-on parts for fans.) Done well, I don't notice some product placement in movies or TV. (Okay, or I'm just gullible.)

20:

Are you addressing Space Opera? Or space based hard SF? The two are not congruent.

Space opera is certainly doable, it's been done several times in the past, with varying degrees of success, and success is certainly not directly correlative with quality.

The medium is certainly going to shape the form, and indeed, there will be variations in form even within the medium. Consider the differences in doing a space opera series released direct to DVD, versus one on a major broadcast network, versus one on HBO.

Now if you're going to ratchet up the Mohs hardness of your space opera, well that starts adding a whole new layer of issues to your production.

At its most extreme, you're going to wind up with educational TV with the thinnest of narrative threads (see: Exodus Earth). That being said, I'd love to see some sort of physics/math educational program set amongst the inner planets featuring a group of teens at some sort of orbital space camp or pilots academy, not dissimilar from Sheffield/Pournelle's Higher Education book.

I think the greater limitation for a harder grade of sf, however, is audience size. Those of us that actually care about how lightspeed induced lag influences targeting performance in space battles are in a small minority. Rather like my design for an Elite style MMORPG, where players get the source code to their ships, and are completely free to override the safeguards that prevent them from setting suicide vectors into the nav system.

Is it possible? Sure. Not on broadcast tv, but perhaps HBO, and production costs are probably approaching the point where a DVD series is doable. Is there a big enough audience for it? One can hope.

You may want to look at Planetes, a hard grade anime that's set in a company that does space junk cleanup in NEO.

As far as book advertising goes, I've grown to dislike dust jackets for just that reason. They tend to contribute nothing but blurbs to the book. And sometimes they're not even for the book you're holding.

21:

Did Joss Whedon's "Firefly" run in the UK? I thought they did space opera pretty well, mixed with spaghetti-western sensibilities.

22:

There's another constraint you might not be aware of, because we don't seem to have this in the UK; it's one of scheduling of episodes.

In the UK we typically have one episode per week, each and every week, from episode 1 through episode 22. But in the US (on the primary networks anyway) the schedule is a lot more odd. It might go episode 1,2,3,(skip a week for a baseball game),4,5,1,2,6,7,(baseball),(baseball),3,4,5,(baseball),6,7,8,9 and so on. Yes, even in the run of a new primetime show they show repeats. This *boggles* me.

OK, the above is a bit of an exageration, but the concept is there. A number of shows now have a "mid-season break" (9 or 10 weeks absence around episode 11 or 13) which may be filled in with repeats from this and previous seasons, or have a totally different show in the timeslot.

This all causes story flow to be broken and emphasise the episode nature of the medium.

I think TV _can_ tell good stories, but they need to be smaller in scope than your typical novel. "Star Cops" (1987, BBC) had an excellent opening episode. The remainder weren't quite as good, but still very well done. The story they were telling was designed to fit the 55 minute format (no ads!); even on the High Frontier people will be people; where there are people you need cops. Each episode looked at an aspect of how life on a lunar colony/space station/long haul transport could affect people and how new opportunities for crime occur. No massive world building, no "save the universe!" dynamics and (of course) cheesy BBC SFX. But well written tight focused story telling.

The good stories, however, are few and far between.

23:

Then the answer is simple, get rid of the advertisers.

The next Dune adaptation for the screen should be done by Masterpiece Theater, not the Sci-Fi channel. IIRC, Ursual K Leguin's "Lathe of Heaven" was done for PBS and it wasn't too shabby. I also fondly remember the documentary SF series "Prisoners of Gravity" from Canadian pubic broadcasting.

If you want quality SF, it has to be government subsidized.

24:

Kevin: product placement in reverse works okay -- there's any number of Ian Rankin/Inspector Rebus tie-ins with whisky and beer ("drink Deuchars IPA -- Rebus's favourite beer"). But that's not feasible unless you're very, very high profile.

bkd69: dust jacket blurbs are advertising. They're meant to make you buy the book, not digest the plot for you. They're also usually whomped up by busy marketing folks who are working from a one-page digest written by the editor, who's actually read the book, hence the tendency of inaccuracies to creep in.

Orbit are sufficiently under-staffed that @EDITORS write their own blurbs, and in my case run them past me for comment and/or input. But that's probably because I view dust jacket copy as a sales tool, not a precious sparkly snowflake of fictional accuracy.

25:

Charlie,

I have trouble buying most of your argument because I don't think it's based on much in the way of evidence. To begin with: given that you generally don't watch TV (for perfectly understandable reasons), and admit that you've never seen a single episode of several SF TV series, how do you know that "the structure of small-screen entertainment ... is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera"?


More substantively, you make this argument:

"To keep the viewers from getting bored, it needs to add eyeball candy of some kind. ... But there's an arms race going on: every other series on TV is doing the same thing, so our series has to be sexier and flashier than theirs if we're not going to bleed audience share. Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed ... and that's when they'll start leaving in droves."

Well, that sounds all nice and neat. Do you have any evidence that it's actually true? Is there an arms race to the bottom, with all TV shows becoming flashier and stupider, or is something else going on?


In fact, a fairly good counterargument can be made that TV drama (including SF) has been getting more complex in the last twenty years, that modern TV shows tend to require more thought and attention from their viewers -- and develop more complicated and sophisticated stories, with deeper and more elaborate backgrounds -- than TV shows of the past. A good overview of this can be found in Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You.

(Note that this isn't, strictly speaking, an argument about artistic quality per se, but about complexity of storytelling. This also doesn't mean that all TV shows are more complex -- the classic "reset at the end of the episode" style certainly still exists. Nor does it mean that appallingly stupid TV shows don't get made any more, though Johnson has a good argument to the effect that things like reality TV shows do require somewhat more mental work by the viewer than the equivalent bottom-of-the-barrel TV shows from thirty years ago.)

Given that complex, multi-year storytelling is a feature of a number of very successful recent TV shows, one could argue that the prospects for complex, well-developed SF on TV have been improving.

26:

Charlie, your analysis about the serial TV show is very accurate.

If you compare serial TV shows to books you have to take in account also the difference between the "intended audience" of the two media. Books require and get full attention by the reader, while TV shows (expecially in the last years) are produced also (also!) for people who have their brain disconnected or are doing something else while watching TV.

You point correctly out the production costs, a real issue in the latest years, when people are not watching TV like 20 years ago, commercials pay less money and studios wants money back in shorter time: 20 years ago a bad TV series run half a season (12/13 episodes) before being shut down, now runs a single episode. It's clear that you cannot "sell" a serial TV product to the audience in 60 mitutes, commercials included.

My personal opinion is that this format is going away. What will replace it (IF will replace it) I don't know. Maybe the "webisodes", but studios are still to frightened by "piracy" to put their show online (they quickly forgot about VHS, but that's another story).

The problem is always the same: how do you collect the money of commercials?

The other problem is that id Studios starts doing webisodes, they probably have to renegotiate contracts and, the most important thing, they would face an insurrection from TV broadcasters.

27:

"Firstly. Is it possible to do space opera on the small screen properly, if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure? (I'm purposely ignoring the BBC drama department in this context because (a) their programming schedule isn't too dissimilar to commercial network TV, and (b) they're not notably into space opera.)"

To respond to this, I'd say wait and see how the HBO production of George Martin's "Game of Thrones" turns out. Not science fiction, but still potentially useful as an early indicator of how a show set in a related genre would do based on the HBO model. The pilot script has been leaked (you may be able to find it on the Series of Tubes fairly easily; I read it myself by peeking at a copy that had been sent to a friend of mine who was auditioning) and has generally been well-received by fans of the novel series, as have been the casting announcements.

28:

I understand perfectly if Charlie refuses to be drawn on this question for professional reasons, but was he asked permission for the excerpt of another novelist's book that was included at the end of the UK paperback of Saturn's Children?

Because it didn't compare at all well, or even fit the tone of Saturn's Children, the first page (of the excerpt) had more cliches in it than I'd ever seen in the worst of pulp sci-fi, right down to the (no doubt grizzled) nameless Sergeant. (Capitalized indeed, with definitive article.)

It seemed a very strange marketing decision to think that just because both "were sci-fi" that someone who had read to the end of Saturn's Children would be a good match for someone who'd enjoy the book this excerpt was from.

Regarding in-book adverts, I didn't know it was part of the contract, but thank god! Inline adverts within ebooks would just ensure that I never make the switch even if the other currently-existing obstacles to adoption are overcome.

I'm one of those people who strongly resents paying for content and then still being treated like access to my eyeballs is for rent by anyone other than me. It's a deal-breaker in any form whereever I encounter it.

29:

@1 >Unfortunately that sort of view doesn't count for ratings

This is the crux of the problem with TV. Ratings.

Ratings are low number samples that get turned into megabucks.

For people who don't watch TV (like me) but do buy DVDs there are no ratings.

No ratings means that I don't exists as far as TV executives are concerned, I am untermensch. Regardless of how much I and anyone like me spends on scifi DVDs we will never be represented.

In the UK only 5000 households are used to collect ratings figures. That's a poxy sample size for the amount of televison that's produced.

See http://www.barb.co.uk/ for details of how it's worked out. Shockingly unrepresentational statistics.

30:

Peter @ 25:
"In fact, a fairly good counterargument can be made that TV drama (including SF) has been getting more complex in the last twenty years, that modern TV shows tend to require more thought and attention from their viewers -- and develop more complicated and sophisticated stories, with deeper and more elaborate backgrounds -- than TV shows of the past."

Agreed. I can't say that TV is _better_ across the board; but I think it's a fair statement that _better TV is available_ than, say, ten or twenty years ago.

A lot of the Babylon 5 advocacy from the other thread is based on appreciation of the fact that that show had a story arc-- back in the mid-1990s, this was a new, exciting thing: you either had a show of stand-alone episodes, or a show with a developing storyline but no planned end-point (in other words, a soap opera). The only other really obvious story-arc show from that era that I can think of is _Murder One_, which was a courtroom drama. Before the mid-1990s, if you wanted to do a story on TV with a beginning, middle and end, you wrote a miniseries, not a TV show.

Now you've got plenty of shows with honest-to-goodness pre-planned story arcs: _Lost_, _True Blood_, _Battlestar Galactica_ (although reasonable people can differ about the quality of the pre-planning), _Dollhouse_, _Kings_, etc.- and that's just the near-fantasy-or-SF.

Two of the more significant developments, I think, in recent TV history are:
* the traditional networks have discovered that there's a market for intelligent, complex shows; and
* even if a particular show isn't doing all that well in the broadcast ratings, the networks may still produce at least an entire season and broadcast it on Friday or Saturday nights despite the bad ratings, so that they can sell the DVDs (e.g., _Dollhouse_, _Kings_).

31:

Sam: IIRC I gave permission because it's Mike, and Mike is a friend of mine, who deserves to get a break. I hadn't read the book in question, though.

(Hmm, must check what goes into the back of my books more thoroughly ...)

32:

I agree with many aspects of your analysis, but since you have not actually watched many of these shows you claim to dislike (for example not even bothering to try BSG) I find it rather uninformed in regards to recent developments.

There is a LOT more sci-fi on TV now that is taken much more seriously than before (this is all relative of course). Far more people watch it, and it involves much more complex and interesting stories (it has broken away from the episodic nature of Star Trek where the universe essentially resets every time).

These new shows still fall victim to many of the evils of TV, but overall they have significantly improved. Battlestar Galactica has many flaws and a very disappointing ending (well parts of the ending), but that certainly did not make me feel like the entire time watching the rest of the show was wasted. The rest of the show reminded me that sci-fi actually has a chance on television, and I think it would behoove you to give it a chance (particularly the fantastic first season).

Yes TV shows are not perfect yet, but they are improving, and we cannot expect them to be an ideal medium for a genre overnight. What we CAN do is encourage these new trends by showing the studios that we are willing to watch when they put more effort into the story and not just the effects and sex scenes.

33:

In other words: to do SF on the screen properly, it needs the big screen and 90-120 minutes of viewing time.

In more general terms, the time compression advantage of reading is an experience I'm very familiar with (cf. newspaper articles vs. TV talk shows on politics), and which should be used in book marketing. "Save time by reading 4 episodes in time for 3 - without ad break!".

34:

"Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed--not stroked lightly, but mashed hard by an insensitive thumb--and that's when they'll start leaving in droves."

No, that's when they start producing and reading stuff like tvtropes.org.

Seriously, I think that much of what you say is true, but it reads like an editorial from roughly 1990. Your generalizations still hold up, but they're a lot wobblier and there are a lot more interesting exceptions. What's most interesting to me isn't any particular show, but rather the growing sophistication of various chunks of the TV audience.

None of which amounts to an argument that you should watch more TV. I don't watch a lot myself. I'm merely arguing that the contemporary state of affairs is a little more nuanced than one might think from reading your remarks on it.

35:

Charlie @31: Oops, I was hoping it wasn't a friend, foot-in-mouth time.

To be fair, the cliched bit was the prologue of his book and it looked like it may have been intentionally done this way as in-theme propaganda, but there wasn't enough of the rest of the book to find out if that assessment was true, and it was such a jarring mismatch for the style and tone of Saturn's Children that it didn't do it any favours.

It kinda read like they'd stuck the beginning of a random warhammer 40k or battletech franchise novel on the end of yours.

Sorry for going so far off-topic, I'll stop now. :)

Actually, thinking about it, TV (and movie) sci-fi is very like those sorts of franchise novels.

36:

This is off topic but relates to the discussion of ads in books.
I read this article a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times about "Hybrid Books."

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/books/01book.html?th&emc=th

Essentially ebooks with some scenes recorded in video. And not as an addition to the scene being in text, but the scene is only available if you watch the video.

From the article:
"Not just how-tos are getting the cinematic work-up. Simon & Schuster is also releasing two digital novels combining text with videos a minute or 90 seconds long that supplement — and in some cases advance — the story line.

In “Embassy,” a short thriller about a kidnapping written by Richard Doetsch, a video snippet that resembles a newscast reveals that the victim is the mayor’s daughter, replacing some of Mr. Doetsch’s original text. "

My concern as it relates to advertising in books is that since this could be a new medium it's probably not covered under the boilerplate and authors could end up with commercials stuck into a crucial scene of their story.

I personally can't imagine buying a book with video, but I could see them being popular with the YA crowd.

37:

You're comparing apples and oranges. TV is an audiovisual medium: it can accomplish storytelling in ways that text cannot. An image combined with music can do incredible things.

Furthermore, given how series work, they are actually perfect for worldbuilding: they can use the stories of individual episodes to explore different aspects of their universe, before going on to put these together and show us how they are affected by various events. It's not like the audience has their mind wiped between episodes.

You'd know more about this if you actually invested the time to watch something before dismissing it. I'd suggest Babylon 5, but I suppose that anything that's on TV must by nature be nonsense, so I doubt you'd give it a real chance.

38:

I am truly heartened to see the number and quality of serialized dramas on TV such as Dollhouse, Kings, and others. However, I keep getting the sense that they are produced with one foot in the grave. Fortunately, I believe the networks see the potential for revenue both in DVD releases and online. Look at how fast the DVDs are coming out now on the heels of the broadcast season. In the last two years, a few series I followed were even finished online as full-length webisodes after being cancelled. I realize they were merely airing episodes already produced, but it still beats getting dumped mid-season without another word. Hulu and iTunes also offer online revenue now.

I believe that the broadcast model is broken. Networks have figured out that as it gets harder to measure viewership, the alternate revenue streams must replace traditional advertising. Two obvious examples using product placement are Mad Men and Trust Me. Both shows lend/lent themselves exceptionally well to embedding products right into the plot. Trust Me was more obvious since they actually had major advertising from Buick during the breaks.

A less obvious example was the number of shows I saw last season that specifically showed off the Hyundai Genesis. From lingering shots of the car to closeups of the navigation system (the word Genesis filled the screen in one shot), Hyundai clearly negotiated a lot more than traditional 30 second ad spots for these shows. These types of product placement are becoming so much more prevalent and, I'm guessing, much easier to sell since they can't be readily cut out or skipped.

The smarter shows requiring committed viewing are anathemic to the traditional broadcast model. Without the occasional "catchup" episode (Lost had one every season iirc), viewership tends to decline over time because of the effort it takes to stay up to speed on the storyline. We all know what happens to shows when the Nielson trend is headed downwards. However, once the DVD is released, the viewer can watch at their own pace. I think the networks will have to embrace time-shifting as it becomes the normal way to watch TV. Why should on-demand content be the exception?

39:

Luigi Rosa @ 26:
... while TV shows (expecially in the last years) are produced also (also!) for people who have their brain disconnected or are doing something else while watching TV.

I think this is actually incorrect. If anything, more recent TV shows tend to demand more attention from the viewer, because they are telling more complex stories and spend less time slowly explaining and repeating things. Compare something like 24 or West Wing with something like Dragnet or Starsky and Hutch.

20 years ago a bad TV series run half a season (12/13 episodes) before being shut down, now runs a single episode. It's clear that you cannot "sell" a serial TV product to the audience in 60 mitutes, commercials included.

I suspect you're vastly undercounting the number of failed pilot episodes produced in the past.

40:

While I'm sure our host is right about the effects of serialisation etc. I think it's mainly that TV is aimed at the widest possible audience and most people like stories about people like them going through things that they could see themselves going through (plus beautiful people and explosions). Good Sci-fi is (IMO) about ideas, constructing a radically different but self consistent world and I think that we are in a minority in getting a buzz out of that kind of thing. Hopefully we'll start getting some good stories when the production cost and difficulty fall low enough for a for geeks by geeks model which is currently only churning out short comedy clips.

41:

Maria @ 21

I think Firefly succeeded (artistically, not commercially) precisely by not really trying to be "science fiction" in anything other than the look of the sets. Which was great. In every other respect it was unashamedly a spaghetti western, superbly cast and with marvellous scripts.

42:

Maria @ 21

I think Firefly succeeded (artistically, not commercially) precisely by not really trying to be "science fiction" in anything other than the look of the sets. Which was great. In every other respect it was unashamedly a spaghetti western, superbly cast and with marvellous scripts.

43:

To all those suggesting that Charlie is not fir to comment on scifi TV as he hasn't seen much I suggets you read up on 'The Courtier's Reply':

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php

TL>DR: You don't have to be an expert to have a valid opinion.

Or, to phrase it another way - you don't have to be a sewage engineer to know when you've stepped in shit

44:

Charlie: ".....if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure?"

I'm starting to get an impression from you that you don't actually know what is changing in the tv world. Your descriptions seem rooted to the last century.

Aren't the constraints you are talking about already eroding (see below) and why should that effect the quality, viability or form of the content?

The advertisers know full well that their ads are annoying and that the population is taking steps to excise them. Ever since people started using VHS recorders to time shift and skip through ads, the arms race between viewer and advertiser has escalated. DVRs improved on this, but were crippled to prevent complete advert removal. The DVD rental market, especially Netflix in the US has allowed us to view tv in uninterrupted episodes, usually 3-4 per disk. If you can wait 6 months after a season ends, you can watch the whole thing in a week now. Internet viewing of tv is growing apace, the market leader being Hulu.com. You can watch full episodes a few days after first airing with minimal ads (15-30 secs) and they even offer an alternative of no inserted ads if you watch (ha!) a full minute or two of ads up front. Then iTunes sells episodes.
On the advertising front, legislative demand is building to prevent adverts from being much louder than the shows they are inserted to (although I think this is becoming irrelevant). In other words, the sheer volume of new content, the increasing availability of old content and the options of other avenues for eyeball time are forcing changes to the delivery of content that reduce supplier power to deliver what they like, and how they like.

I mention this because the idea of intrusive ads may be dying. Certainly the shift is towards product placement so that labels and brands are in clear view rather than hidden as in the distant past. But how will that work in SF stories? Doesn't the Sony-Nintendo thingymagig start to look contrived in SF stories, a sort of brand advertising that makes little sense? [And don't those Pan Am space clippers now look cute in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Pan Am went bankrupt in 1989?)

As for demographically placed ads and product placements in the text of novels, I would be more than annoyed. It might be minor if Space Ranger Hero drinks McCallans if read in Europe, but Wild Turkey in the US. But when the technology changes to match the reader - our hero tries driving a Ford SUV through an Italian village because of my demographic...FAIL! (Was this why they were driving through old Venice in "League of Gentlemen"?) I have to believe that the clear separation of advertising and content will remain, even with the new media. In other words, while advertisers will continue to try to push the boundaries, the lessons already learned from print and video will apply to electronic digital media. Thus we can insert local product ads on signage at sports events, but the ads have no effect on the event itself.

The nightmare scenario. The story changes because of the products that were used or not used affect the story:

In Europe: "The car came to a skidding halt. 'Damn those Firestone tires, if only I had changed them to Michelins as Bert suggested, Doctor X wouldn't have got away' he thought."

In the US: "Doctor X's black, armoured sedan careened off the highway and came to a halt in the trees. The Michelin tires still spinning unevenly as the last bits of tread separated from them. 'Can't beat a Bridgestone when you need really need traction' he thought."

:)



45:

I find that I must disagree that TV is overwhelmingly episodic and ill-suited to longer story-arcs with more complex plot-, character- and world-development demands.

The balkanization of TV in the US is driving significant differentiation in viewership (even in my crappy hotel I have 50+ TV channels, at least 20 of which are devoted to 'special interests'. Normal cable & satellite customers have many, many more available to them). The availability of even more distribution channels (netflix, hulu, fancast, youtube, dvd) means even more opportunities for people to have custom channels.

My son and his teenage friends (as an example of a non grey-hair demographic) watch shows on hulu, on fancast, on cable, and elsewhere (including podcasted via iTunes - blech!). They are seriously into whatever it is they're into at the moment and seem to enjoy episodic (simpsons, House), semi-episodic (Dexter), and long-arc (True Blood). They are not tied to schedules, and define their own viewing agenda! So I don't think they (or we) are in any way tied into necessarily low-brow low-information-density programming.


This balkanization of demographics and distribution makes me much more hopeful that decent TV (for some value of decent) is much more likely to be made today, than at any time in the past thirty years. However, whether 'hard SF' is sufficiently lucrative to attract funding will depend on many things - not least commercial success in other media. If anything, the success of star trek and star wars harms the possibility of decent SF on TV - because the successful formula for movie SF success is teching the tech with loud explosions, sexy aliens, and hawt leading actors.

As has been said on this blog (and elsewhere) before - movie execs are generally not tech savvy. They don't understand what makes real SF tick. They do know what sells. I don't know that TV execs are any different.

46:

I think there might be a problem with conflating written and visual SF; it seems to me that they work differently. Marshall McLuhan talked about the difference back in the middle of the last century, and I think that one of the primary problems with the newer media form (televison, for example) is that the directors, producers, and script-writers look at it as a simple adaptation of the written form.

Just off the top of my head, I think it might be best for televisual science fiction to adopt a structure other than that of an "A" plot backed up by subplots. Instead, perhaps it would be better to have A-, B-, C-, and D-plots running simultaneously, but the first bit of the show have the BCD plots running in the background, then switch over to B after the commercial break with the C & D plots running in the background along with A's denouement, so on and so forth. Yeah, you're delivering less meat of the story, but it wastes less time on setting up a cliffhanger and each portion of the show has a complete plot. I.e., as novel/novella-length SF doesn't work, shift to flash fiction as a model.

47:

I'm ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn't belong in a script.)
Here's the rub: the ideational density of a TV or film production, to a viewer experiencing it in real time, is lower than that of a work of written fiction is to a reader — an hour of TV with ads (and spurious scene-based setup/teardown) is equivalent to 20-25 minutes of written fiction

Don't you sort of contradict yourself here? Yes, you can read something the length of a script in less time than it takes you to watch the show that the script is made into. But, as you say, a short story version of the same script will have to include description and scene-setting - so it'll be a lot longer. I don't think the comparison holds.

What you should be doing is comparing the show as filmed with a novelised version of the same story.
Let's take films as a metric. While it's true that the script for a two-hour film will be only short-story length, the book of the film will be, well, book length. By definition, they've both got the same number of ideas in them because they're both telling the same story (unless the author of the novelisation has gone off on a few tangents) but the novel will take longer to read than the film will take to watch.

And I think the same would hold for TV shows (it's just that they generally aren't novelised one episode at a time).

Novels have end-of-chapter cliffhangers too, which need setting up (some novels seem to have one at the end of virtually every chapter, in fact *coughatrocityarchivescough*)...

48:

ajay@46: Visual stuff takes longer to convey in written form than in visual/spoken form, but once you leave the realms of anything visual you want to convey, the written form is much faster, for example:

Two cars jostling for position as they round a corner of an intersection: in a visual medium like TV there is an enormous amount of information density in what might be a six-second scene, there's the relative positions of the cars at each stage of the corner, the types of cars, the colours of the cars, what shop is on the corner of the street. To convey all that in written form will take you much longer than six seconds to read.

This is why action sequences work well on film.

By contrast, if you need to convey the sociopolitical background between two ideologically opposed space empires and the real-politick for why they've not yet gone to war, in order to understand the event that becomes the straw breaking the camel's back... well, in paper you can just write it and tell it to the reader (might be boring but you can do it...), on screen, well you need a talking head giving exposition to explain that, which is as slow as reading the book out loud.

This means that any background setting that requires explanation acts as dull filler content that causes people to switch channels, whereas it can, and often is, a very interesting part of written sci-fi.

49:

I hazard to make a guess. Average intelligence of readers of high quality SF (or even space opera) is much higher than the average intelligence of TV-viewers. Thus, if the show was smart and written to be enjoyed by people who like to sit down and read books, it wouldn't have much of an audience. So they play it safe..(and who am I to blame them. Maybe I should just get a lobotomy..)

And that's why SF on TV is so crappy. Other genres are better, because SF is not for everyone, and a lot of readers just don't get it(same as with anime*..). So the audience is smaller, than the one for say, quality comedy or crime or war..

*why should I watch silly cartoons? It gets sort of tiresome to explain that Japanese make cartoons for adults.

50:

Working by analogy, there're already two places where context sensitive ads are already placed: online and in computer games. The first has given rise to one of the largest advertising corporations in the world and the second... hasn't really done too much.

The thing is that context is a real killer for adverts. If your audience is already geared up to expecting a single unbroken work, then you have to insert them within the game rather than breaking the game in two (or three, or four). That then leads to Ye Olde $Drink ads in the fantasy RPG of your choice, and 'Real Orcs wear $Clothing' or whatever, which kinda breaks immersion.

There was a real problem I remember when I MMO placed a particular PC manufacturer and retailer's top-line product in it's game. It just looked silly and broke immersion to believe that PC towers would be hanging around after the destruction of the Earth.

I'm not saying that it's not impossible, but it might be that it will be easier for ad companies to change the genre rather than how they advertise. See for example the rise of episodic gaming. Maybe we'd end up with a new serialised fiction?

Publishing is already in an interesting place revenue-wise, so ads would be a good source of revenue. I could easily see publishers defraying costs, or making their profit, on ads. At that point serialising just makes financial sense, especially for the larger publishing houses that need a bottom line.

51:

Schmidt: Japanese make cartoons for adults.

Well, yes. And I can barely imagine any western network programming, say, Haibane Renmei as anything other than a 2am filler on cable TV.

The old gag that the golden age of space opera is eight seems to hold true for TV execs view of their audience.

Nick: One point to note is that the cost of building a game -- even an MMO -- is pocket lint compared to a major advertising campaign by, say, McDonalds or Ford. And some research shows that brand retention lasts for weeks after exposure to it via a game, even if it's as unintrusive as three seconds of "SPONSORED BY MOTOROLA" in the intro titles. (As compared to hours to a day or two for TV ads. If that.) If you can do procedural content generation to keep the thing running, and draw in players to make interaction interesting, sticking your name above the WELCOME sign outside a free MMO is a great way to get eyeballs -- and quite cost-effective compared to a saturation blitz on prime time TV and the internet.

52:

Re: not having a video recorder until your twenties, isn't that just a case of being old middle-aged?

53:

@44: I hated the update of the product placement in the Matrix series. The first movie featured the iconific black (and shady looking) Nokia 8110 (IIRC), in one of the sequels this was changed to the the newest Nokia. Didn't fit the visuals a bit.

54:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to $USER.FAVOURITES.TVCHANNEL.

Not sure I am looking forward to this.

55:

Alan Little @ 41: well, sets and (what I'm assuming are) FTL spaceships, and quite advanced tech/medicine, and and and... :)

56:

"...the classic four-part structure of the ongoing TV drama episode...."

Tv series in the U.S. have ceased using that structure in recent years.

57:

I think "The wire", even if it's not SF, it's nonetheless a proof that *potentially* it would be possible to do a good SF show on small screen in the same way as Charlie does write his novels: realism, attention to the interaction of all the elements as a coherent system, minimal attention to the episodic nature of the medium and maximum attention to the story-arc, no easy payoffs (only 2 times in all the show a policeman shots his weapon, and both time is by mistake).
There's also to say that "the wire", while a critical success, was not a great public success, and many people find it too slow/too complicated.

P.s. about anime as a good sf medium: I would like to suggest to those who do not know it a series I quite liked, "planetes". Good hard sf.

58:

@57

..sort of, if not for the absence of the Elevator.. and the ridiculous junk collecting. I mean, send out people in suits? Robots could to that job easily.. and most debris is too scattered anyway.

Not to mention what Charlie said: that space is bloody useless for us right now. No cost effective use apart from satellites. All the minerals are too far away.. much easier to dig deep.

I liked it anyway... but these nitpicks kept occuring to me.

59:

Charlie: That's a good point, I didn't think about the cost effectiveness of it all. Another good example of that would be the Flash game sites that will probably soon be the backbone of the industry. A 10 second advert as a Flash game loads up is probably peanuts, and even garners kudos for supporting the developer. Not to mention the ones bracketing the game, at the top of the page and anywhere else that they can be shoehorned in.

As it regards book publishing I could easily see the following cause-effect chain: the publishing industry needs money; adverts supply the money; large publishers use this money to keep the upper-hand by retaining eyeballs; adverts follow the eyeballs to the large publishers; cue vicious circle.

I think two things might break that though: the inertia in the industry and the deep-seated tech ignorance in the media (it still needs convincing that XML/tagged data is the way forward) and I suspect that big-name authors wouldn't play along with this (if you're large enough, a publisher would still accept hand-written text, although they won't be around forever).

60:

Schmidt@49: "Average intelligence of readers of high quality SF (or even space opera) is much higher than the average intelligence of TV-viewers. Thus, if the show was smart and written to be enjoyed by people who like to sit down and read books, it wouldn't have much of an audience."

I would have thought the same reasoning applies to other genres, e.g. period dramas. Yet somehow very good historical dramas get done, and it is not the sole preserve of the BBC.

61:

charlie@51: "And I can barely imagine any western network programming, say, Haibane Renmei as anything other than a 2am filler on cable TV"

We've had "Adult Swim" on late prime time that ran adult anime.

Thinking in terms of time slots is becoming very C20th. I haven't watched anything "real time" in over a decade - I always wait at least until the DVR has captured the show and then watch it at the time of my choosing. Even Nielsen recognizes this in their household surveys.


62:

#43:

The courtier's reply is directed at trivial, persnickety, obfuscatory, or irrelevant philosophical arguments that are probably just sub-sets of already-dismissed arguments anyway. It's ultimately an observation that there's nothing THERE to argue about, so even sophisticated arguments are arguments about nothing.

By contrast, science fiction television rather plainly *does* exist, and Charlie doesn't seem familiar with anything recent. (Star Trek: TNG came out in the Reagan era, mind--we still used MS-DOS and we could say "radical" without smirking and using bunny-fingers.) I mean, imagine this:

"There is no good fantasy literature. All good literature requires sophisticated characterization, which fantasy literature lacks."

"What about Martin, Bishop, Butler, Kay, and Bujold?"

"Never read 'em."

If I made that argument, you'd *laugh*. You'd probably decide that my knowledge of "fantasy literature" was limited to Thor comics from the 80s and re-runs of Xena.

I'm not sure if Charlie--if he hasn't watched any recent television, including Rome, the new BSG, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Firefly, even Babylon 5--is any more qualified to make judgments about the current state of a whole medium. Making fun of Star Trek is easy--Star Trek is stupid--but before one makes blanket statements like "the structure of small-screen entertainment...is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera," it might be good to watch some of it. After all, *I* think the new BSG fell to pieces, but that's because I watched it, and my reasons don't look anything like "inherent incompatibility with the medium."

63:

Alex @ 60:

would have thought the same reasoning applies to other genres, e.g. period dramas. Yet somehow very good historical dramas get done

Good point, but for the fact that most historical drama (that I have seen or are aware of!) does not require any understanding of the period or the history surrounding the period. If it's good drama (story + characters) many of the 'settings' will at least be familiar as 'old-timey'. The plot & sub-threads will likely also be familiar [else why make the drama!] (courtroom, kings & serfs, pygmalion, etc)

An SF show could not rely on any 'passing familiarity' and would not want to rely heavily on Mr Exposition* providing 'cliff notes' every time there's something new/strange/different/SFnal happening! Even with familiar tropes there should be sufficient difference that Mr Average Viewer is more likely to be confused rather than engrossed.

Not to say it's impossible (see Dollhouse, et al - upthread). Just very, very hard (and probably limits what you can leave as unstated back-story)

Let's just say Eureka is not good SF.


*You may recall the hooraw regarding the introductory story so far at the beginning of the original star wars. Execs hated the idea, and thought that the (very limited) exposition was too 'saturday matinee' while also requiring people to read the damn thing! They thought it would limit the audience too much. Lucas wanted it precisely because it suggested 'saturday matinee adventure'. AFAIR an early version even had a voiceover (aka flash gordon, buck rogers).... dropped thankfully in the production cuts.

64:

The answer to your question, yes it's possible to do space opera on the small screen properly. For example, Deep Space 9 showed it had the potential to do it right (I'll lay out the plot after my post since I doubt you'll watch it, writers botching the ending a little doesn't negate what could be done), and I think the storytelling of the last few seasons of Stargate SG-1 are another good example.

Each episode is a chapter, and each chapter has to stand on its own. But it's been shown that you don't have to push the reset button every episode. The way you do universe building is by having the consequences of things that happen carry forward, and connecting the episodes as parts of a larger story. I guess my point is that it's not the same as a book, but it's possible to tell a good story at the lower density of television. So what if an entire year of episodes equals or is less than the storytelling in one book in a good series? Conveying a story with a sense of the passing of time is possible in a way that isn't possible in a book. A show hasn't been pulled off with the perfect balance of these things yet, but there are recent shows that have come closer than anything attempted before them, and I believe things have improved and will continue to improve, unlike your assumption that explosions and sex are all that will sell.

-------------------
Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Season 5 final episode: Dominion reinforcements keep coming through the worm hole. While war hasn't been declared, the Captain has had enough and deploys a mine field, and tells the dominion ambassador there's no way he's taking it down. This leads to the dominion attacking the station and the Starfleet crew leaving DS9 aboard the Defiant and, along with the Rotaran, rendezvousing with a MASSIVE klingon/federation fleet.

s6e1: Were you expecting this to be a 2 parter in which the Federation gets the station back? Wrong. In this episode we get to explore the characters dealing with a radically altered situation. It's three months after the last episode, and the war is going badly for the Federation. On the station, now renamed Terok Nor, we see how the characters left behind are dealing with the station being run by their former enemy, and we see the crew of the Defiant reassigned to a captured Dominion ship. They succeed in their first mission of destroying an enemy storage facility housing a drug the dominion uses to keep their soldiers in line, but end up marooned on a planet behind enemy lines.

s6e2: On the Federation side we get a rudimentary plot about the crew being marooned on the same planet as a Jem Hadar ship. The way everything plays out leading to them getting a message off of the planet was some wonderful character work, giving us some insight into the enemy races of the Jem Hadar and Vorta. The little screen time devoted to life on the station this episode was used to great effect. We see the realities of being an administrator of a station run by the enemy wearing Major Kira down. This is brought to a head when one of her people's religious leaders hangs them self in protest.

s6e3: In somewhat of a break from the sweeping arc of the last few episodes, this episode focuses on character development. Aboard the Rotaran (the Klingon ship where Worf serves as first officer) they have just rescued the stranded crew, but this episode focuses on the Klingons. Worf's son Alexander is assigned to the ship, and having grown up on Earth, is clumsy joke of a Klingon. Worf not being there for him on The Next Generation has come back with real consequences. This episode could have been pulled off better, but it was a good idea for continuity. On the station, we get to see Dukat interact with his half Bajoran daughter Ziyal, who has lived on the station for some time and has adopted Federation values.

s6e4: Aboard the station, Kira has started a new Bajoran resistance (essentially a terrorist cell we're supposed to sympathize with), drawing on her experience during the former Cardassian occupation. Odo doesn't approve of her acts of sabotage, insisting that it won't take much for the Dominion to kick every Bajoran off of the station. She agrees to back off, but when Quark discovers that the Cardassians have come up with a way to disable the mine field, she comes up with a plan to disable the equipment needed to do it. It relies on Odo running a security diagnostic at a predetermined time, but he has become so preoccupied with learning about his race (who controls the dominion) from the founder aboard the station he doesn't bother to show up to security when he was supposed to. The person who was doing the work of disabling the deflector array is caught and taken prisoner. On the federation side, Capt. Sisko has impressed the Admiral at the Starbase that the Defiant has been operating out of, and is promoted to a desk job planning operations for an entire tactical wing. The Defiant is sent off without him and he doesn't like not being on the front lines.

s6e5: Sisko has convinced Starfleet to go ahead with his ambitious plan to take back the station. Rom is scheduled for execution aboard the station, and tests to take down the minefield are about to begin. There are a lot of good small character stories, but the crux of the episode is Rom is broken out of jail, they manage to get a message off the station to Sisko, and Starfleet is gearing up to take the station back.

s6e6: A "race against the clock" episode. Will Starfleet get to the station before the minefield is taken down? A massive and visually impressive battle ensues, but in the end we get a Deus ex Machina fix. The wormhole aliens closing off the only way to Dominion territory at least fits in with previously established events. They have the station back, and the Dominion is now confined to operating in Cardassian space in our part of the Galaxy. The war is far from over though. Studio pressure apparently conspired to prove your point (they wanted a return to a more episodic format), but this run and several episodes in Season 7 show that it can be done.

65:

I agree that the advertising/broadcast business model and the associated program template is rapidly becoming obsolete. I've not actually watched a sf tv series except on DVD now for several years and most of my mates are the same. I can't see how this shift of income isn't going to accelerate and start to have real impacts on 'video' sf.

66:

Whatever the drawbacks of the commercial-filled standard broadcast TV slot may be (and I think they are many and egregious), that format is not the only one available anymore. Several of the premium cable networks (e.g., Showtime and HBO) show programs which have no breaks of any kind, commercial or otherwise, and their time-slots may not even be alloted in integral numbers of half-hours. Their business model is completely different from broadcast tv; it's a subscription model, and they expect viewers to time shift with DVRs so that the showtime and length are not a constraint.

There have been a lot of dramatic series that have worked well in this environment, like "Carnivale" and "Dexter" (picked at random). It's a good venue for SF in the sense that the constraints on action and plot dynamics are much less severe. But the real problem for SF in television and in the movies is the higher budget requirements for sets, costumes, and CGI. This usually puts SF productions in the realm of "the studio execs watch the production like hawks, and constantly stick their fingers into the creative decisions". There's no way a production using concepts that an imagination-impaired MBA can't follow is going to survive that.

67:

regarding media moving online, I'm not particularly optimistic. I've been observing things since the mid nineties when I considered the net as an ideal self publishing platform and things just haven't materialized. Mostly the web appears to have a parasitic relationship with normal media - either as direct parasites (the piratebay) or as derivatives (fanfiction.net), original independent creators, at least in the fields I like to follow seem to squeak by unnoticed and unloved.

BTW nice to see others are echoing my recommendation of Planetes

68:

tony@63: "An SF show could not rely on any 'passing familiarity' and would not want to rely heavily on Mr Exposition* providing 'cliff notes' every time there's something new/strange/different/SFnal happening! Even with familiar tropes there should be sufficient difference that Mr Average Viewer is more likely to be confused rather than engrossed."

I can't actually recall any SF show that is really, really "different". They all assume the main protagonists are human or recognizably so, even the aliens are usually pretty understandable if they are to be talked to (with some notable exceptions). Technology is very understandable projections from today or just use well worn SF ideas, e.g. "transporters". The culture is usually embedded in the present, so even ST:TOS now has very 1960's cultural attitudes, yet it is set in the C23rd. I agree Dollhouse is more original, but in that particular case I don't find it a very engaging show. I'm giving it's 2nd season a try, to see if it improves over the first.

Historical drama has the benefit that the periods depicted are known and there is a wealth of background that can be used. However they often go astray and it can be an interesting game to try to find the errors. Again, where they also fail is that modern culture inserts itself into the script. In reality, even Shakespearean London would be a very alien place for most of us, and it gets much worse the further back in time you go and the further afield geographically. Hollywood has made even ancient Egypt appear "modern". Of course there has to be a balance between realism and engaging story, otherwise the contemporary viewer hasn't a clue.

One of the best depictions of a near future culture I once saw was the "Out of the Unknown" BBC series episodes. It started with a scene in a movie theater where the the audience was roaring with laughter as the WWI battle scene showing soldiers dying. It became apparent that this was because mind transfer was routine so you didn't die. Unfortunately, other than that, these future people were not that different from Brits in the 1950's/60's.

For a glimpse of a really different human culture, I have always liked C. M Kornbluth's "Day Million".

As Clarke has said - any highly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While that can be easy to depict, (assuming it is well thought out) we still have the problem of people being depicted as contemporary.

69:

According to Abigail Nussbaum, who does watch a lot of TV, most modern fiction-based TV shows integrate serialized (as opposed to episodic) story-telling. (Resorting to an argument of authority because I don't have a TV. With the exception of Whedon shows, I remain immune, happy to say.) It's not essential to all shows, but it does add a lot of value for the invested portion of the audience.

Audience-wise, story-based shows are very much dominated by the behemoth of reality TV, sports, and other less-scripted entertainments. They still have going for them a different audience, which may be more captive, attentive, and, for some advertised products, more appropriate; as well as more reuse opportunities beyond the initial broadcast, as exports, rediffusion, and DVDs.

70:

@68:

I think the reason for that one is, that we're *not* living in a technologically progressive age, especially the US, but the rest of the western world is not much different. Nothing much happened except for information technology and even there progress came to a screeching halt in the last 5 years or so.

Maybe my perception is a bit off there, I grew up in the GDR until age 7, I had my first cassette player in 1991 or so. Before that it were vinyl records or nothing. We never saw the need for buying a VCR, but got a C64 in 1992. First PC in 1996. I was an early adopter of DVD drives, which was the first and last time you could find me anywhere close to the cutting edge of tech.

Owning an Athlon 1466+ I got a PII 350 laptop and found it was sufficient in 2003. I've stayed at least 5 years behind the tech curve ever since and don't think I missed much (except for some pretty graphics in games I didn't play ... oh well).

The US spends more than half its budget on military. 700 billion dollars are dumbed into a money hole - elsewhere those could create an additional trillion dollars of GDP or so. That's a fucking huge number. The US imports about a trillion dollars worth of stuff and gadgets each year more than it exports. Another 2 trillion dollars of GDP aren't so much part of the economy but financial fiction. So, we're talking about at least 10-20 years' worth of economic growth disappearing in a puff of statistics.

There has been precious little incentive to actually be inventive in our societies. Thus, nothing was invented. So you shouldn't be surprised that SF ran out of new ideas - there just weren't any. Because it costs freaking huge amounts of money to have new ideas and implement them - and nobody actually spend all this money, even though plenty is around.

Politics are in fact openly hostile to technology. Look at copyrights and patents, or the joke that NASA has become, or whatever they call broadband in the US.

SF is a matter of advances in *society*, but societies all over Europe and America are in a stagnant break-down as I'm typing. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a western equivalent to Michael Gorbachev to realize that the system was fucked up beyond all recognition in the last 30 years or so.

"Yes we can" talk will change nothing if you don't say what is wrong. Like saying that you can't pay a paltry 90 billion for health care because you spend 300 billion dollars more on military than 8 years ago. Obama never said a word about that.

When a country is broke and broken, this must be said. Gorbachev did at least that. (Hint: some anvils need to be dropped.)

I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that the US is choking on its own nukes and guns over and over again.

There is no vision of future for society anywhere outside China. Not even that of a big collapse. Just a meddling through. Ok, there will be a predictable severe stock market crash in the next half year or so, but I can't see how this is going to change politics or business.

SF needs an audience that has an opinion about the future. Right now, the future is not on the agenda anywhere (even the church of global warming denies there is such a thing).

Who dares to look 50 years into the future? Not even houses are expected to last that long any more. (Victorian relics inhabited by SF authors notwithstanding.) People openly question our ability to build structures that can last for 500 years. They question the ablity of our societies to care about anything for just a few centuries, even though several buildings stood for more than a thousand. *That* is how bad people think our society is - and they have a point!

Look at "2057" (The TV mockumentary). Society stays whatever it was, plus a few gadgets and demographics that inevitably cripple society because there will be only one working person for 2 pensioneers and kids. That's what they call vision.

Compare that to 1987's TNG. Hopeless utopia? Maybe. But at least there is a vision.

Battlestar Galactica was not about change in society but about the current state of society, as just about anything else you get to see these days.

Sometimes I think the Cyberpunks got it right and we live in those novels today. But that was never the point of writing them, was it?

71:

An online television revenue model occurs to me, that could straighten all this out for you Charles.

Part of the enjoyment value in viewing video entertainment is doing it together with friends and in commenting and comparing it with those friends.
A tension between TV and Internet mediums is that TV made us all sit in the same room to do that while the Internet tends to have us sitting at our PC's (or similar) but then more recently has us all congregating into social networks.
If we combine the two in a loosely coupled way, we could present internet TV with time scheduled presentation of shows and social network connected viewers that could agree to watch shows together at the same time and be able to comment/text/talk to each other during the show.
The advertising to pay for all this would be attached to the comment/text/talk medium that occurred in parallel to the video medium. This would mean there would be no need for the breaks every few minutes in the show and in turn obviate the need for the plot destroying advertisement cycles.
In addition, the commentary could be mined (hopefully with permission) for feedback to both refine the shows and to better target the advertising.

72:

tp1024: Sometimes I think the Cyberpunks got it right and we live in those novels today. But that was never the point of writing them, was it?

Indeed not.

(There are those who read 1984 as a hideous dystopian warning ... and there are those who read it and think it's a road map.)

73:

Following up on what Gary said, most network TV shows now have five acts, not four. Of course this makes it even worse from a storytelling perspective. The change was made to cram in more adverts, and most TV screenwriters aren't happy with it.

74:

I recall in an interview Harlan Ellison complained about Studio executives (and even their secretaries) wanting to "improve" his scripts.He said that getting a project done in Hollywood was like climbing a mountain of manure to pick a Rose, only to find out when you reach the top you've lost your sense of smell!

75:

tp1024@70. I'm not sure we HAVE to live in a technologically progressive age to experience cultural shifts. Of course, technology is certainly a driver.

As regards technology changes that are shifting our culture, I have to disagree with you there. It seems to me that even simple communications technology is changing cultural habits a lot, e.g. kids texting on their phones. (And note I use the word phone because cell phones are the only ones that matter now. Shades of Clarke's "in the future the word 'ship' will simple mean 'spaceship'".)

Deeper cultural shifts are happening too. While the last big shift might have been the contraceptive pill in the 1960's, medical technology, and possibly serious life extension, are changing cultural attitudes to life and death, marriage, when to have children (or not), etc.

I was born in England in the 1950's, and when I look back, it seems that it was a completely foreign country to how I live now. Certainly the technology changed, but I also think we have changed culturally to a significant degree. Watch an old movie and it becomes quite apparent.

I personally think that SF writers of any kind are good at extrapolating technology, but not of soft things like culture. Exceptions exist, especially in the print media, but rarely in the visual media. A good example was the rather so-so "Amsterdam". Our protagonist has lived over 400 years and had numerous families, yet his perspective is not that good, and depicted mostly as personal flashback scenes rather than wider events and meaning you might expect from such a being. While he acts like a modern person, paradoxically his older selves seem to as well.

OTOH, I give our host much more credit here. His "Saturn's Children" displayed a lot of interesting post-human culture in their robotic world. Could that even work in tv?

76:

Golly Gee, Charlie, I think my reading comprehension is fine. It was passages like this:

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

That I comprehended quite well, thanks. You're trying to walk back "SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss" and you got snotty about it instead of just owning up to your overstatement.

77:

@68
For a glimpse of a really different human culture, I have always liked C. M Kornbluth's "Day Million".

Kornbluth? My memory and Google both say Pohl.

But I get the point.

JHomes.

78:

"Following up on what Gary said, most network TV shows now have five acts, not four."

I didn't add up the total number of ads, or lengths, of the commercials shown for the two-hour premier of Stargate Universe, but after the second hour began I started roughly timing the intervals between commercials, and it was 5-8 minutes of story followed by approximately three minutes of commercial, with slightly less frequency of commercials in the last fifteen minutes.

The number of commercial breaks seemed utterly astounding to me, and simply overwhelming in its intrusiveness.

On the other hand, the One True Way to watch a good tv series is to get the entire season on DVD and watch through it all in rapid order. If it's a properly high quality show, such as The Wire, or Deadwood, or Rome, you'll catch the nuances, and not lose the flow, that you miss and lose by watching via broadcast, or even online, tv.

And if it's not good enough to devote that kind of attention to, it's not really worth spending any time at all on, unless you just want some light popcorn on in your background.

79:

Re:advertising in books.

Advertising is much more subtle these days (as described by Eddie Izzard).

The proscription on in-line adverts in books is irrelevant in the age of product placement, the book equivalent of which is brand-name dropping; I'm looking at you, William Gibson & Peter F. Hamilton. One also wonders (with tongue at least slightly in cheek) if Charlie gets any payment from Nakamichi for "Saturn's Children"...

80:

Advertising: I got an inkling of what advertising must be like on US TV from an episode of Babylon 5. It was in the form of a TV documentary about the B5 station, with added B5-setting adverts. And I heard that US viewers were confused, because the fake adverts triggered advert reactions.

In the UK, there's a clear marker distinguishing program from adverts. I infer that in the USA there isn't.

And, even on commercial television in the UK, there's a an apparent excess of locations for advert spots in a US TV show. It's often an obvious Lambeth Walk effect, where the whole scene seems to jump back a second or two, usually with a pause in the dialogue.

Product placement: there's a somewhat fuzzy line between product placement and the sort of snobbish name-dropping used by Ian Fleming in the James Bond novels. But, while it can lock the story to a particular time and place, it doesn't have to be intrusive. Brand names are part of reality, and we often mostly ignore them. In a visual media, I don't see a problem with a packet of cornflakes being a real brand, but in a book, would you have a character referring to a packet of Kelloggs? Or just "pass me the cornflakes"?

How much is a cultural perception, and how much is there a real difference between US and European TV adverts? Do they tell the same stories in different visual language, or is there some more fundamental difference? I don't think that there are many world-wide brands anyway, but there are some.

That furry Orangina adverts certainly sticks in the mind, but it's almost a cliche that it first appeared in France.

81:

BSG commentry

Shame you didnt watch it Charles i think it was a bit much to say you hated it without watching, and you know you might have liked it.

Any way my 2c on the ending:

1: of course they have to reach earth its what they are searching for they either find it or they all die.

2: i think its not one cliche but 2 the two big ones
a: adama'nd eve

b: it was all just a dream (a story) for how do we end but with the two "head" characters looking over the shoulder of Ron Moore the series creator himself discussing "god" and how he doesnt like to be called that (he prefers Ron?)

82:

Product placement in books: has no-one here read "Pattern Recognition"?! Or doesn't that count for some reason?

83:

Sorry, I'm being stupid again.

Doesn't Futurama prove that you CAN do intelligent space opera on TV? Or is there some reason why it doesn't count?

84:

@82: "Pattern Recognition" is a novel about product placement, far as I can tell. Or was that your point?

@83: Futurama's intelligent, yes. It's not space opera, although it has excursions to the space opera where they dress up, wear silly hats, and make fun of the cliches. I'm fond of Futurama. (Can't you tell?)

The trouble with space opera on TV is that SF on TV in general seems to lag the written field by somewhere between 20 and 60 years. Most space opera on TV is stuck in the 1930s, with some occasionally rising to the late 50s/early 60s (the discussion of plot tropes in Babylon 5 is riddled with 50s classics which the media afficionados for some reason think are original: conflict of order versus chaos, psi corps, that sort of thing).

I'd love to see someone try to do a space opera from the post-Schismatrix era. Say with Al Reynolds and Steve Baxter on board as world design and rule book construction tsars. Unfortunately I don't think it could be done, because it would fry too many studio execs brains -- it's too far over the horizon. Probably the best we can hope for is for someone to option David Webber's Honorverse, which is at least internally consistent most of the time ...

85:

dwoop:
"If you want quality SF, it has to be government subsidized."

Bollocks.

2001 - A. C. Clarke & S. Kubrick.

86:

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE

It's morning here. I'm about to get on a train with no wifi and crap phone service and go visit elderly relatives for a couple of days. Your chances of getting me to rise to the bait are thereby diminished.

When I get back I have a bunch more blog postings queued up. They include:

* I hate (c)rap music

* Michael Jackson: dead white guy?

* Capitalism sucks: Communism will save us

and

* Yes, your ass looks fat in that. (And you need to shower more often.)

87:

As to the advertisment in German books that was in MMPB's of one publisher in the seventies and eighties. In the middle of the book you would have a righthand page with text which took on from the last words of the lefthand page, albeit most times in a slightly different typeset, "introducing" the ad. It would go like this (just a short of the cuff example)

end of lefthand page:
Elenas most feared day was the first monday of every month as she was always pressed to come up with the rent.

beginning of righthand page:
"You need a better job" her friend Sasha said when they met in the coffe shop. "Perhaps you should consider part time study"

If you turned the page over you'd have a full page standard ad for a big part time studies institute, or a bank, soup etc., the novel would go on on the lefthand page as the author intended. If you ripped the ad-page out you'd remove any trace of advertisement from the book without damaging the content. These ads were especially annoying in the earlier paperbacks when they didn't change the typeset for the "ad introduction page" and you, full in reading rythm, just read on into this until you got the strange feeling that this page did not fit into the rest of the book...

I haven't seen such an ad in any current german MMPB for at least a decade but since I almost exclusively read my fiction in english nowadays that doesn't say this practice has been discontinued even though I think that is the case.

88:

AndrewD @ 71

"we could present internet TV with time scheduled presentation of shows and social network connected viewers that could agree to watch shows together at the same time and be able to comment/text/talk to each other during the show."

check out Livestream.com, it's basically this, streaming video with a chat window to one side

89:

jHomes@77 Memory failure. Getting older really sucks. *sigh*

90:

While I think Charlie's criticism applies well to the vast majority of TV "SCI-FI" and television programming generally, people in this thread have pointed to examples of well-written, enjoyable science fiction and other shows that maintain a long story arc (the Dominion War arc in Deep Space 9, for example.) The new Battlestar Galactica was first-rate entertainment for the first two seasons, until it began to succumb to some of the pressures that Charlie outlined.

In particular, I think that long-arc programs are well-suited to advertising-free television. Witness HBO's "Rome," as mentioned by others on this thread. The Wire rejected many conventions, and required a great deal of attention from its viewers. It was not a program disrupted by advertising, and its plot arcs coincided with seasons, rather than episodes (though certain story threads followed the entire series, of course.)

In other words, it is possible to show well-written, engaging, character-based drama (including science fiction) in an hourly format - as long as the viewer is expected to keep track of the arcs, and especially if there are no advertisements. I think there could be a future for good science-fiction television in the format of those programs that do not rely on advertising interruptions, such as those programs on pay-networks.

Episodic, ad-supported science fiction is generally rubbish, though, and for the reasons Charlie mentioned. Also, following on what poster 73 stated, one of the reasons that TOS was better than TNG because TOS was written in the classic four-act style, with less ads, whereas the later Star Trek series had to fit modern advertising formats.

Actually watching a program on television if there are advertisements, and if you have to wait for next week for the next episode, is decreasingly the better option, and many youth are recognizing this.

91:

I completely agree that for all of TV, in fact, there are structural impediments. There have been years where I didn't watch TV at all. The reason is because I saw a somewhat roundabout compliment/blurb for Larry Niven from "The" Tom Clancy once on a Niven book, and 15 years later here I am reading, via this fancy new blogging thing, Charlie's Diary.

It really felt underground, organic, and self directed at the time. The new shows like "Mad Men" seem to stroke a similar sci-fi bone; whether it's the novelty, the authenticity, hell I'll even settle for consistency.

What, nobody has heard of the show "Big Bang Theory".

We can talk about new forms of advertising, but they all must bow to the Gods of demographics.

92:

Craig M.@91 "Big Bang Theory" is brilliantly funny, sit-com, but I don't see what it has to do with SF, unless the issue is only about maintaining story arcs. (Or do you you consider Sheldon's ideas, in particular, SF?)

93:

Reading this thread, I keep thinking about the decline of SF short stories as a money-making form as part of this conversation. The connection is that we don't seem to be getting much (if any) good, short-format SF produced, whether it's short stories or five act, hour-long SF programs.

This is in spite of the fact that us youngsters supposedly have shorter attention spans than our elders. (as if anyone who can get sucked into a computer game for six hours obviously has a shorter attention span than someone who reads, say Reader's Digest)

What I'm trying to figure out is why this might be the case.

Some possibilities:
1. Sturgeon's Law. If the probability that something is crap is 90%, then if few pieces are produced, it's statistically possible that they will all be crap.
2. Media companies are looking for an ROI of 10% plus (mostly because they're trying to please stockholders, who include all of us who are trying to retire rich), and as a result, they're desperately, and not too sanely, looking for sure things based on numbers alone. Science fiction is a minority genre, and it has higher production costs than, say, reality (i.e. anything from quick turnaround reporting to reality TV).
3. Science fiction is maturing as a genre which results in fairly settled tropes, formulas, and formats. As such, it is leaving the experimental realm of punk rock and entering the subscriber-supported realm of opera and symphonies. People still write new operas and symphonies, but the new pieces don't fill arenas like, say, pop music does, or like operas and symphonies did a hundred years ago. In SF, this means that people write novels, either as trilogies or as series, and anything that deviates too far from the formula only makes it to a small audience of die-hard enthusiasts.
4. The guys with the money and creative control have been scared by science since they were little kids, and this is a roadblock to green-lighting any major project based on science. I'm actually having problems with this one, given the popularity of various things on the BBC science programs, March of the Penguins, Mythbusters, and similar.

94:

The short story/ TV episode word count/information rate analysis made by our host in his original post makes sense to me as I find that documentaries also suffer from very low information rates; you learn less facts watching TV than reading for a similar period.

SF, as defined by our host in this argument, relies heavily on imparting novel information, which makes the weaknesses of TV as a medium more apparent. Where the TV wins is with emotional immediacy and being able to immerse you in the experience with visuals and sound.

Also, it seems to me that TV and Film are only beginning to mature as a medium. Back in the 90s someone tried to tell me once that only 100,000 films had ever been made, while 80,000 books were publised in the UK that year. Is the crapness of SF TV just because we haven't made enough of them yet to a. learn from our mistakes and/or b. happen to stumble on a work of sublime genius that TV executives forget to kill?

95:

Neil W:

you learn less facts watching TV than reading for a similar period.
This is made worse by the irritating habit of many documentary film producers of alternating key images under background music and filler images under narration. The Science Channel just loves this style. But it's pure waste: humans can quite easily absorb verbal and visual information at the same time.
Is the crapness of SF TV just because we haven't made enough of them yet to a. learn from our mistakes and/or b. happen to stumble on a work of sublime genius that TV executives forget to kill?
No, it's because of the sublime idiocy of those same executives, and the organizational dysfunction of their production and distribution companies. Some very good TV programs have been made in the last few decades, even a couple of SF programs¹; but the quantity of crap generated in the same time means the percentage of the good is around 0.01%.

1. Examples: "Jeremiah" (benefited from the no-commercial format), "Dollhouse" (got done because Fox contractually owed a series to Eliza Dushku, and she persuaded Joss Whedon to write and produce it, and at that, they've already threatened to cancel it as a way to enforce cost reductions), "Flashfoward" (I hope; the jury is still out, but at least they started with something by a professional SF writer). Note that none of these is space opera by any stretch of the imagination; as I mentioned before, TV and movie execs are deathly allergic to spaceships.

96:

#93, point 3: the last time anyone made a living by primarily writing sf/fantasy short stories was about fifty years ago.

Even then, and earlier, it was extremely hard to do, and there were never, from 1930 through 1960, more than a handful of people (men, actually) ever able to do it for even a few years at a time.

(Most of them were named "Robert Silverberg"; most of the rest were Randall Garrett under one name or another, or with one colloborator or another, including, hey, Robert Silverberg. I exaggerate faintly.)

In the pulp era there were enough magazines and thus enough markets that a few people could earn a (low income) living almost solely by writing short sf/fantasy fiction; since then there simply haven't been enough markets buying on a monthly basis for that to happen any more.

This is not a recent phenomenon.

On the other hand, the assertion that at some recent point in time it became the case that "we don't seem to be getting much (if any) good, short-format SF produced" is very questionable, although what one thinks are "good" stories is entirely subjective, of course.

97:
20 years ago a bad TV series run half a season (12/13 episodes) before being shut down, now runs a single episode. It's clear that you cannot "sell" a serial TV product to the audience in 60 mitutes, commercials included.

I suspect you're vastly undercounting the number of failed pilot episodes produced in the past.

Coming in very late but . . . know why all the Chihuaha's you see are so small? I found out when we bought our purebred for a mere $50; the breeders kill anything that doesn't rigidly conform to breed standards. If our dog Hershey had been a half-inch shorter, he would have been put on the block for $200. His actual size being what it was, he was slated for the gas chamber(or lethal injection, or whatever they do to the pups.)

I bring this up because it would be nice to see what caused some of those failed one-episode or zero-episode pilots to be canceled. I could see all too easily how - for example - non-humanoid concept aliens could result in a thumbs down if a key segment of the target audience simply were uncomfortable with them. "Research shows our key demographics don't empathize with three-armed one-eared buggers who are smarter than humans. Can you give them four arms and a Fatal Weakness that humans can exploit?" "Women in the 18-35 age brackets find aliens who reproduce by laying eggs in other species repellent and squickful. Can you make them have nests like birds instead? Oh, and lose the second head. Say . . . can you write them to look like Big Bird?"

I get the impression, iow, that shows don't get the green light on their strengths, but the axe because of their perceived weaknesses, however slight they may be. That it's not concept but comfort that is the real show-stopper.

98:

The increasing amount of advertisement: online, on TV, at the movies (before the feature), on cable TV (where I'm already paying to view the shows) is beginning to annoy me. Fortunately paper books haven't embraced a similar intrusive form of advertising, yet. Have ebooks?

Tony @ 63 mentioned Eureka, a show I rather enjoy (for the comedy, not the science), but they almost lost me as a viewer when they began, week after week, in a more heavy-handed fashion, working a particular name-brand product into the storyline!

The only bright point I've noticed is that, with video recorders, viewers can now skip the commercials, so a few advertisers are making their commercials so entertaining they can be better than the TV show. Advertisers have fought to make it impossible to automatically edit commercials from video recordings. If they could they'd make it impossible to skip over them as well (as they've started doing with online video). The most "meta" programs are the ones which compile the years best commercials, complete of course with interleaving commercials.

99:

Charlie @84:

I'm sure TV execs would make a mess of David Weber's Honorverse too.

TV and movies can't really deal with space combat in any realistic fashion. Molecular Nanotechnology isn't on Weber's radar, but he has tried to create a universe that allows him to tell interesting stories, yet still account for actual astronomical distances. So you end up with ships that can accelerate at 5km/s^2 and so can scoot around a solar system in hours. Engagement ranges are on the order of light-seconds.

So sure, you can have the ship captain bring up the enemy ships on the bridge view-screen, but any accurate-to-the-universe exterior shots will be able to show _one_ ship, and perhaps a few specks of light. I don't think the viewing public would accept that.

An Honorverse TV show would end up being about as faithful to the books as the paintings are the book covers themselves. In other words, not very.

TV and movies really can't handle space ships traveling over 200mph, except when they're jumping to hyperspace. Heck, they don't show modern air combat accurately most of the time.

100:

Late to the party and I haven't read all the comments completely... but no-one seems to have mentioned Farscape yet.

101:

[ Drive-by content-free flamage deleted. Normal service is being resumed, folks. Feel free to argue with me, but random abuse with no content attached will be deleted. -- The Mgmt. ]

102:

Rereading the post, I'm not sure we've answered the second part of the question, "...and why SF on TV is so generally identified with that form."

Doesn't it come down to the random walk of fashion? One show get's lucky and then becomes the safe pattern for others to develop?

But there have been countless other science fiction shows. (I suppose you're going to tell me that Futurama doesn't count as science fiction either, but what about the3 John Wyndham stories which have been made into TV and film (mainly a while ago, I admit) or the Twiglet zone or Edge of Darkness (which was admittedly a noir thriller which only revealed its true colours quite late in) or First Born?? Or Heroes?

103:

I won't fall in with those who can't tell the difference between a statement that you don't like something, and a statement that something is bad.

I have noticed that when I tell people I like science fiction, THEY start telling me about MOVIES and I tell them about BOOKS! I can think of about 100x as many great SF/Space Opera books as I can movies, and precious few TV series, though I was always a sucker for pretty space shots, and put up with NG, and the others waiting for something good

I think there is something to Charlie's point.
My own opinion is that TV is just as dead as print journalism, and we just don't know it yet. But then maybe books are dead too? OK so much for that idea.

BTW - picked up "The Revolution Business" at noon Saturday last, finished it before bed.

jbd

104:

Alex @ 92 I'm embarrassed to say I am not always sure if I could tell real science from that which is made up, re: "Big Bang Theory". However, my gut says that those who liked ST:TNG, are probably enjoying BBT. Although BBT is a sitcom so therefore we are being manipulated hands down. Star Trek as an experience is one thing; and I would qualify as someone who enjoys/enjoyed it. But Star Trek is SF lite. For example, of 10 of my friends who all watched TNG, right up to and including the final episodes, I would be the only one who has continued to read science fiction (never mind using literature for entertainment purposes in the first place). I guess the value of Star Trek as broadcasts is much greater than its value to actual SF. Broadcast is a term that is meant to indicate netting as many viewers as possible.

105:

@77:

@68
For a glimpse of a really different human culture, I have always liked C. M Kornbluth's "Day Million".

Kornbluth? My memory and Google both say Pohl.

Okay, here's how to debug the tangle.

The short story "Day Million" was by Fred Pohl. But he also edited a collection of the same title.

THE BOOK:

Day Million Frederik Pohl (Ballantine, Jun ’70, pb)

* · Introduction · in
* · Day Million · ss Rogue Feb/Mar ’66
* · The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass · ss Galaxy Jun ’62
* · The Day the Martians Came [“The Day After the Day the Martians Came”] · ss Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967
* · The Schematic Man · ss Playboy Jan ’69
* · Small Lords · nv Science Fiction Quarterly Feb ’57
* · Making Love [“Lovemaking”] · ss Playboy Dec ’66
* · Way Up Yonder [as by Charles Satterfield] · nv Galaxy Oct ’59
* · Speed Trap · ss Playboy Nov ’67
* · It’s a Young World · nv Astonishing Stories Apr ’41
* · Under Two Moons · nv If Sep ’65

THE STORY:

Day Million, (ss) Rogue Feb/Mar 1966

* The World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967, ed. Donald A. Wollheim & Terry Carr, Ace 1967
* Nebula Award Stories 2, ed. Brian W. Aldiss & Harry Harrison, Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1967
* SF: Authors’ Choice, ed. Harry Harrison, Berkley Medallion 1968
* Day Million, Ballantine 1970
* Science Fiction: The Future, ed. Dick Allen, HBJ 1971
* A Science Fiction Argosy, ed. Damon Knight, Simon & Schuster 1972
* Alpha 3, ed. Robert Silverberg, Ballantine 1972
* Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, ed. Robin Scott Wilson, Mentor 1973
* The Best of Frederik Pohl, Nelson Doubleday 1975
* Marriage and the Family Through Science Fiction, ed. Val Clear, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander & Patricia S. Warrick, St. Martin’s 1976
* Bio-Futures, ed. Pamela Sargent, Vintage 1976
* Decade the 1960s, ed. Brian W. Aldiss & Harry Harrison, Macmillan UK 1977
* Science Fiction: Contemporary Mythology, ed. Patricia S. Warrick, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, Harper & Row 1978
* The Road to Science Fiction #3, ed. James E. Gunn, Mentor 1979
* The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, Arbor House 1980

If I might further confuse things, there's MY FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION STORY
Edited by Martin H. Greenberg
DAW
0-88677-830-1
372pp/$6.99/March 1999
seventeen science fiction authors select their favorite science fiction story of all time, have them write a short introduction explaining way, and present them to their reading public.
"Only one author, Frederik Pohl, is represented as both a selector (his favorite story is C.M. Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag") and a selectee (Joe Haldeman's favorite story is Pohl's "Day Million")."

106:

Now it is clearer why Charlie was scandalized at my suggestion he might like MST3K. Pity, it is nothing like the genre shows he dislikes. It encourages active viewing of cultural drek rather than passive reception of our masters' futuristic progpoganda.

107:

It's not true science fiction, fine. Let's re-categorize it. Then people can enjoy their respective genre's in peace.

I liked Star Trek and B5 and BSG. Were they true scifi as Huge Gernsback would define it but I don't care. I liked the stories being told.

You are right that television is a medium that forces mass production with not enough time for development.

However you are also admittedly anti-television. Something quite alien to me as I'm a fan of acting. Books are superior at telling stories but on the stage and screen an actor can bring a character to life like no writer possibly could.

So, in short, you don't like Star Trek and I don't care.

108:

Charlie, what you say about product placement in novels is frightening, specially we are almost there - if it hasn't already happened.

For example, have you read Stieg Larsson 'Millennium' trilogy? Good novels in my opinion, but I found more than a bit worrying things like the heroine spending at least two full pages buying new furniture at Ikea... to the point that every table, chair and lamp was named! I will not call it 'product placement' because the treatment was 100% aseptic (it could even be interpreted as telling us how little class Lisbeth Salander has got, how plebeian she is) but still the trend is ominous.

109:

For a thoroughly peer reviewed discussion on this subject, have you consulted the Oracle? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_television

(The webspam pathfinder returns to close down another discussion... BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!)

110:

I nominate Farscape. After the first season it was a consistent world building effort that, while lapsing into monster of the week, always incorporated everything into a relatively seamless universe.

The aliens were varied and rich (save perhaps for the Scarrans though arguments could be made). It did have some forehead ridge aliens but I think they did a very good job of avoiding the "one culture" problem and the "all klingons are warriors"/ all aliens stereotype problem by presenting varying members of alien species (in contrast to the main ensemble they showed rogue nibarri, mytic luxans, agrarian sebacians, blue collar delvians, etc.)

Plus John Crichton may be my favorite fictional character and who doesn't love sci-fi reference humor ("DRD Pike" was endless fun).

111:

'Manfred slides in next to him, catches the bartender's eye.

'"Glass of the $SPONSOR_DRINK, please," he says.'

Hmmm, but what's this :-O :

'"You drink that stuff?" asks the hanger-on, curling a hand protectively around his Coke.'

Hmmm, I suppose one could automatically filter product-placement out by reversing the process using a filter table:

filtertable = {
'Coke': 'coca-cola',
'SuperBeer': 'beer',
'AnotherSuperBeer': 'beer'
...
}

... and one could build up a list of candidate words to add to the list by simply making a list of unique words from a text, that start with uppercase and are not at the start of a sentence.

112:

Hugh,

Yes in principle to the filter table, though you'd need to watch the details (hint: 'Pepsi':'pepsi-cola'). Doesn't detract from your point, just shows what a sad pedant I am.

Regards,

Will

PS. WHERE is my marauding spam swarm? This is VERY EMBARRASSING.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 14, 2009 11:51 AM.

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