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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

SF on TV
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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

So far this month, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe have aired. I enjoyed the first, was bored by the second.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles "Samson & Delilah" (****) by Josh Friedman (who co-wrote the Steven Spielberg film War of the Worlds)

Last year the first season pilot had 9 million viewers, but it aired during the writer's strike, which gave it a leg up. This episode, the second season premiere, had only 6 million viewers, still pretty good for science fiction, especially science fiction as unsentimental and uncompromising as this. I liked the music over the opening scenes, John Connor's increasing independence from his mother, and the fact that the evil boss did not (contrary to the usual cliché) murder her henchman. (Instead she said, "Be careful out there," a nice reference to another of my favorite TV shows.)

There may have been some last minute changes to this episode. I seem to remember news that a regular would be killed, and there was a moment when killing a major character would have been a powerful way to advance the plot. It doesn't happen. I guess it didn't play in Peoria. Instead the character just leaves without saying good-bye.

Much as I enjoy Terminator's fundamental conflict, between sentimental humans and unsentimental machines, the series has a problem. We've seen Terminator III. We know how it is going to turn out. I hope John Connor's increasing growth as a character will make up for the lack of surprises, just as Lex Luthor's descent into darkness has made up for the fact that we know how things turn out for Clark Kent.

Fringe Fringe "Pilot" (*), by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci
The first half hour of the Fringe pilot had a lot of viewers, but many of them changed channels half way through the show, not a good sign. J.J. Abrams created Lost, wrote Mission Impossible III, and is in charge of the upcoming Star Trek film. Kurtzman and Orci's main credit is writing the Transformers film.

Abrams, in an interview, lists Rod Serling's Twilight Zone as one of his main influences, and admits to being more interested in film than in books. He was impressed by how original and provocative Rod Serling's ideas were. If he had read Astounding Science Fiction, he would have known that Serling's idea were trivial and old hat (though I admit to loving Twilight Zone in my teens -- it may have been minor by the standards of Astounding, but as far as television went, it was the only game in town).

Since Abrams gets his ideas from movies and television, rather than books, it is not surprising that his ideas are derivative. In fact, he seems proud of using ideas from David Cronenberg and Rod Serling. Also every film I've seen of his has taken up a great deal of screen time with people either running from one place to another or chasing each other in cars. Now, it is possible to do a great car chase. Think Bullet. Think The French Connection. Think Speed Racer. No, scratch Speed Racer. But it is very hard to do an interesting car chase on a TV budget. So most of Fringe was pretty boring.

The plot is this: a female FBI agent teams up with a man who investigates the paranormal. Her boss doesn't think she's up to the challenge. And there is a conspiracy of some kind to hide the truth. But the truth is out there! You want to believe!

A good writer knows when to let a character take charge. A good writer may have a plot in mind when she sets out to write (or not) but if the character wants to go in one direction and the plot wants to go in another direction, a good writer knows that it is always more interesting to follow the character. By this standard, J.J. Abrams is not a good writer. His characters are at the mercy of his plots. They trust untrustworthy people, take insane risks, suddenly fall in and out of love, are cured of mental illness by a kindly word, and suddenly change from good to bad. Plot rules and the characters are dragged along by the nose. This does not make for interesting television.

Other SF on TV: there are several genre shows on television that I seldom watch, because they don't satisfy my SF Jones. I like science fiction for the ideas. If a show just has one idea, that's not good enough. If a show has a ghost, or an angel, or a talking car, or a flying nun, it usually leaves me wanting more. I want to see stories that take a hard look at how the real world would change if there were ghosts or angels or talking cars or flying nuns. Instead, these shows drop a dollop of sf into the puddle and there are no ripples. Mundane characters have mundane problems until in the end the ghost/angel/car/nun steps in to save the day.

But there are a couple of shows that are a little better than that. First, there's Eureka. I really meant to list Eureka in my "what to watch in September," but with all the new shows, I forgot. Here is the list.

Tuesday, September 9
Eureka "Phased and Confused" by Nick Wauters

Tuesday, September 16
Eureka "Here Come the Suns" by Eric Wallace and Jaime Paglia

Tuesday, September 23
Eureka "From Fear to Eternity" by Bruce Miller and Charlie Craig.

And reader Patrick Riley tells me about a British series that does not ignore the impact of SF ideas on the real world. He writes,

"I liked the BBC Life on Mars because it focused on and pointed out the differences between life now and life in the early 1970s. What really came across was how much better it is now, despite the nostalgia for the past that we see so often today. The music was great -- all early 70's rock. The title comes from the title of a song by David Bowie. The stories are police procedurals set in 1972, but the time-traveling hero has the additional problem of trying to get people he works with to do the "right thing" according to 21st century morals."
Sounds good. An American version is coming to TV in October. Why am I skeptical as to whether the American version will tackle ideas like the BBC?

Copyright © 2008 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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