The Problem With Sci-Fi Is the People
This past summer, I set myself the task of keeping up with two highly touted television science-fiction series, “Under the Dome” and “Extant,” both on CBS. I have spent the past couple of weeks trying to figure out how to put my response. I do not want to make enemies, but, my goodness, did I ever come away disappointed. That’s the gentlest word I can find.
I have been a science-fiction fan as far back as I can remember. I’m old enough to have written one of the protest letters that persuaded NBC to bring back the original “Star Trek” for a third season. Nowadays, sci-fi on television has become -- yes -- a vast wasteland.
I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with everything. I enjoyed William Brinkley’s novel “The Last Ship,” but the television show couldn’t hold my attention for more than two or three episodes. I haven’t caught much of “The Strain” -- vampires aren’t really my thing -- but the critics seem to think the show never quite got going. Still, I set off upon my summer expedition with high hopes.
Alas, the expedition went poorly.
I had to give up on “Under the Dome” because it became too ludicrous. I struggled through the first season, in the course of which the residents of Chester’s Mill often seemed to forget that they were isolated under an inescapable dome. Stephen King, on whose novel the series is based, tried to save the day. He penned a creepy and compelling first episode of this second season, setting up a series of wonderfully mysterious subplots. Alas, once the staff got its collective hands back on the material, the show resumed sliding in every direction at once, never quite achieving coherence of either narrative or character.
The guy who held a young girl in chains for the first few weeks of the first season? The writers decided we should sympathize with him. No, wait, we shouldn’t. Yes, okay, we should. He’s cool now. The guy who murdered that same young girl later? Turns out he’s not a bad fellow. He just thought that killing a bunch of teenagers was the quickest way to bring the dome down. Okay then. Understandable. Then there’s the batty science teacher who planned to kill a bunch of her fellow residents to make the food supplies stretch. Sure, trust her again! Why not? Oh, and our heroine, Julia. Would she willingly sell out the entire population of Chester’s Mill on the off-chance that she could save the boyfriend who, by the way, killed her husband? Of course she would! And then there was this resurrection --
I had to stop. I was tired of yelling at the screen.
Leaving me “Extant.” That one I stuck with all the way to its incomprehensible ending. First, the good: I’ve never seen such high production values on a sci-fi television show. Everything glittered. The spacecraft looked great. The computer projections, the artificial limbs, the humans being gobbled up by hungry aliens: All the special effects were top-notch. I’ve seen big-budget feature films that weren’t as crisp. “Extant” was fun to watch. The trick was to turn off the sound so that such trivialities as dialogue and plot wouldn’t get in the way.
I don’t know which sci-fi cliche boxes the writers didn’t check off. A mysterious pregnancy? Check. An alien who can project visions into our minds? Check. An android child who wants to be human? Check. A super-secret semi-government agency employing endless teams of black-clad viciously murdering underlings? Check. A mysterious billionaire pulling the strings? Check. The failure to tie all of this together in an actual story that made any sense? Double, triple check.
What made watching “Extant” especially painful was that Halle Berry acted her heart out. Joy, pain, fear, fury -- Berry can turn emotions on a dime. She deserved better material. She always deserves better material. But Molly, the supposedly brilliant astronaut Berry played, couldn’t seem to figure anything out. Her naivete was astonishing. She always trusted the next person to walk into the room, even when the next person to walk into the room was someone she hadn’t seen in years. (Hint: The alien can project images into your mind. Well, maybe she forgot, what with the constant maternal angst over the fate of her half-human child who was constantly killing people.)
So many of the characters seemed to need common sense knocked into their heads. After a while, watching “Extant” was like watching one of those teen horror flicks where the guy says, “Wow! A mysterious scary sound! I have a great idea. Let’s split up. I’ll take the attic, you take the basement, and the girls can go outside in the mist and wait in the creepy woods. Oh, and make sure all the flashlight batteries are low.”
Just exactly like that -- except that the monster never jumped out of the closet. I was reminded of the hours I squandered a few years back watching “The Event,” waiting for whatever was supposed to happen to happen. And it kept on not happening.
Still, the larger problem with television’s recent sci-fi offerings isn’t the silly and confusing story lines. It’s the characters themselves. My literary agent once told me that what makes a novel successful isn’t the plot. It’s the ability of the reader to turn the page and say “I know these people!” Believable, realistic characters make for great fiction, and sci-fi is no exception. The Steven Spielberg touch: the reason the first two “Jurassic Park” movies worked so splendidly and the third -- not so much.
Watching “Extant” and “Under the Dome,” I never felt I knew any of these people. I never felt I wanted to know any of these people. It isn’t that sci-fi can’t work on television. One doesn’t even have to go back all that far. “Firefly” pretty much worked. “Jericho” almost worked. “Game of Thrones” isn’t exactly sci-fi, but it’s working because the characters work. My advice to producers of the next highly touted science fiction series: Hire writers from the “Sopranos” tree. Get some folks from “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” -- writers who understand the interplay of plot and character. The high concept will never work if the concept is all there is.
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