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 hulu.com 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 hulu.com 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?