Do ideas, characters, or great storytelling make sci-fi great? Let’s talk TV.

I’m easily distracted by shiny newness.

This year I discovered that is a great way to crack open the time vault and discover old sci-fi TV and movies—mostly TV—that I missed when they first aired. After I main-lined all the episodes of SG1 I’d missed, I started poking around for other sci-fi goodness. I discovered a number of shows I’d never even heard of. Generally, my first response to each discovery was ooohhh-shiny-happiness. But often my interest waned quickly. So, what were these shows lacking?

Sci-fi is often thought of as idea driven fiction.

I think sci-fi often does needs a good idea. It doesn’t have to be new or all that special, but something has to make the sci-fi fan think…cool…what if! So some of the shows I discovered had some good ideas. What if a virus whipped out all the adults in the world and left only the children to build a new future? Jeremiah. What if in the future scientists had learned how to manipulate people’s memories? Total Recall 2070. What if someone woke up knowing everything, as if a data base of all the facts in the world had been downloaded into his brain, but couldn’t remember his own life? John Doe. All cool ideas…but none of these shows had that something special that would make me give up my sleep or throw away a weekend to keep watching.

So, where did they go wrong?

Maybe it was the execution? Half of what made Firefly so awesome was the fabulous writing.  Maybe it was the low budget visuals? Do people watch SGU for those cool wide exteriors of the ship going by? Probably not. Or was it the characters that made my discoveries fall flat? While the characters weren’t terrible in any of these shows, they weren’t memorable to me either. Two of the three shows were named for the lead characters as if they knew you wouldn’t remember them if they didn’t beat you over the head with the name. John Doe actually started out with some strong characters, but they quickly fell apart and the story began to wander like the midway point of Lost.

Characters do it for me.

Probably, a good sci-fi show needs all three things: story, characters, and ideas; but I think characters are the deal breaker for me. I must love at least one character. 

What is your deal-breaker for sci-fi shows?

11 thoughts on “Do ideas, characters, or great storytelling make sci-fi great? Let’s talk TV.

  1. Firefly is an excellent example of when SF works. There’s a chemistry between the characters that creates interest and empathy.

    It’s not just an idea movie, but how those characters handle the idea.

    As for deal breakers: Generally, I’m a stickler for plausible science. If the director MAKES me believe it can work, I’ll run with it. It’s when they overplay their hand and insult my intelligence that I get grumpy.

    • I’m a huge Firefly fan. The chracters are unforgettable, the world building is very cool (despite the fact I have trouble believing the dishes don’t fly around in the galley when they land or take off), but it is the writing and the dialog that captivates me.

      Sometimes I cringe to think that show was cancelled before the season finished but shows like Jeremiah got two seasons. Ugh.

  2. Firefly was the best. I believe it was written by the man who created Buffy. Josh Someone. It never dropped into the absurdity that some show do.

    • Yes. Firefly was pure awesomness. Joss Whedon wrote Buffy and the follow on Angel before creating Firefly. He went on to create Dollhouse and the web hit Doctor horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

  3. I think you need to add a fourth thing that is needed – network backing. A few years ago an awesomely wonderful TV series, Babylon 5, was killed by the network, then jumped to another, then lost a star who had to be written out, then got shuffled again. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, wrote a tremendous blog about what he originally wanted the show to look like, and it was brilliant. But the constant network manipulation shredded the final two seasons into a shadow of what they could have been (fans of the show will know what I mean by ‘shadow’).

    I think Firefly also lost network backing, which killed it off early. So did the wonderful classic Quantum Leap. You need a really strong champion at the network to get these SF shows made. As you can tell, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this.

    • Great point Ruth. Some people say the reason Firefly failed was because the network wouldn’t let Joss launch the series with the two hour pilot. They aired the second episode first then several weeks later they aired the pilot. Crazy! Another issue is the expectation of the networks. We have to face the fact that sci-fi does better on a network that doesn’t expect high ratings. What might be a success on the WB is a failure on FOX.

  4. There was an interesting ScFi show on a few years back called Threshold. It involved an alien force that used sound to change earthlings into monsters–and only kids were immune. It starred Carla Gugino as the head of a team of agents tracking down the contagion. It was stuffed with wonderful characters and really evil aliens. I agree with you about characters making the difference.

  5. OMG I loved Firefly. Didn’t watch it until it was off the air, though. 😦 Nathan Fillion is my hero! Even if he did creep me out as Caleb on Buffy.

    I remember being upset in high school because some club I had joined met on Wednesdays – the same time Quantum Leap was on.

    One of the cats in my story is named after a B5 character. You really need to go watch that show.

  6. Babylon 5 was brilliant. It was written like a novel, with a beginning, middle, and end. Characters grew and changed and political intrigue abounded. We had heroic characters to admire and nasty ones to loathe. It was wonderful. Then I greatly enjoyed Stargate: SG 1 and decided the reason why was the characters, who also grew and changed during the seasons and whose friendship stood steady throughout the ten years it ran on TV. Plus I loved the humor. The characters on a show have to be likeable, people you admire, and friends you want to spend time with. A humorous touch keeps the storyline from being too grim.

    • I know a lot of SG1 fans aren’t crazy about SGU, but I enjoy it. I have to confess, though, that I cheered when they had an episode that brought back Daniel, Sam, and Jack. Those characters are completely real and I would love to hang out with them.

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