Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Arc of Truth: Part 3

Part 1.
Part 2.

In 1993, two science fiction TV shows began airing. Both shows were set on space stations in the future. Both shows involved a large cast of diverse characters, human and alien. Both shows - eventually - depicted chaos and hardship as wars erupted between various factions. Both shows employed cutting-edge special effects and epic storylines. Both shows were pretty damn good. And, perhaps most surprisingly, both shows ran their allotted lifespans and ended their runs successfully.

The first show was Babylon 5, created by veteran TV scriptwriter and producer J. Michael Straczynski and produced by Warner Brothers. The second was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, created by Star Trek: The Next Generation writer-producers Michael Pillar and Rick Berman and produced by Paramount as a spin-off of The Next Generation, then in its sixth and penultimate season. They took radically different approaches to the idea of the long-form story arc, but oddly ended up in a similar place.

J. Michael Straczynski (or, as he prefers to be known, JMS) created Babylon 5 after trying to develop two separate concepts: one was an epic, galaxy-spanning space war featuring intricate politics and huge space battles, inspired by the Lensman and Foundation novels; the other was a small-scale, character-driven drama located aboard a space station, focusing on realism and character development. Whilst developing these ideas, JMS was hit by inspiration: unify the two stories and use the space station and the characters on it as the 'window' onto the world of the larger, more epic storyline. He eagerly developed a large ten-year story arc spanning two separate shows (later, and somewhat more realistically, paring it down to one five-year show), won the support of veteran TV producer Douglas Netter and spent the next several years trying to sell the idea. Eventually Warner Brothers took a chance on the project.

The development of Deep Space Nine almost killed Babylon 5 at birth, but Warner Brothers chose to press on with it. Straczynski, for his part, was suspicious of Paramount, as he had presented Paramount with the Babylon 5 proposal some years earlier (including detailed storyline information down to the presence of a shapeshifting alien on the station, something he had to drop from Babylon 5 to eliminate the appearance of stealing the other show's ideas), but eventually decided there was nothing he could do and moved on.

Babylon 5 ran for five seasons from 1994 to 1998 (with the pilot airing by itself in early 1993). It won a loyal audience following, won several major awards (including two Hugos) and picked up a lot of critical acclaim. It was lauded for its intricate, pre-planned storyline, its epic scope, its razor-sharp characterisation and its elegant final episode. It was also applauded for being made well on a modest budget and introducing the use of CGI to TV SF. It was also, at times, criticised for dubious dialogue and a long run of poor episodes in the final season. Broadly, however, it was very well received.

Deep Space Nine ran for seven seasons from 1993 and 1999 and gained larger audiences than Babylon 5, although it never won over as many viewers as The Next Generation. It took longer for the show to 'get going', as it were, but by its third season the show was enjoying a consistently high run of quality episodes. Some Babylon 5 fans mockingly noted that the show seemed to be treading in Babylon 5's footsteps by introducing CGI space effects, large-scale space battles and political and storyline developments only after B5 had done them first. However, the reverse was also true at times: the introduction of the White Star - an experimental warship - in B5's third season followed the introduction of the Defiant - an experimental warship - in DS9 a year earlier.

When DS9 ended it had also become warmly critically received. Although there were some thematic similarities to B5, the show had ended up in a somewhat different place and with a different focus. DS9 had also become extremely consistent in episode quality (arguably more 'reliable' in weekly episode quality than B5 over the course of its lifespan) and was also much funnier (despite his sometimes awesome skills with dialogue, a JMS comedy episode is a painful thing to watch). The oddest thing about DS9, though, is that if you sit down and watch all 178 episodes in relatively close order (as I did a couple of years back when I was working abroad for a while), its storyline is extremely cohesive, appears to be pre-planned and the ending is tied-in well to where the story began.

This cuts to the core of what makes a story arc work or not work. Deep Space Nine had achieved the impossible in being a show which winged it and played it by ear, but somehow ended up working. Virtually every single other arc-based show which tried this fell flat on its face: The X-Files eventually collapsed into a confused morass of UFOs, black oil and shapeshifters, crushed by the weight of its own mythology, whilst Battlestar Galactica spectacularly self-destructed in its final season with its unresolved mysteries, under-developed storylines and unwise use of half-assed ideas combining to bring the show to an underwhelming conclusion.

The reason Deep Space Nine works so well is that the story is not based on mysteries. If it had been, it would have probably run into the problems experienced by BSG a few years later. However, with the series' main storylines all being forward-moving plots not based on an intricate 'mythology', the playing-it-by-ear approach actually worked very well. The show remained fresh and interesting, with the producers having the freedom to adapt to changing circumstances. Even apparent deviations from the overall series arc, such as the bringing in of the Klingons in force in the fourth season, work well in the overall scheme of things. The only moments where the series wobbles are a series of 'surprise' revelations about Sisko's personal history in the final season, which scream of "Unconvincing retcon!" and are distinctly unconvincing. Nevertheless, Deep Space Nine succeeded in being a great story arc show with a definite beginning, middle and end, despite none of it being planned ahead of time.

Babylon 5 is the stronger series in the sense that having the arc planned out ahead of time allowed much more intricate use of foreshadowing and forward planning. However, this also bit the show on its ass a few times. Having the storyline pre-planned meant some spectacular hoop-jumping had to be performed whenever something unforeseen happened. The abrupt departure of actress Andrea Thompson at the end of Season 2 saw her storyline transferred to another character in a manner that initially seemed clever but later on appeared to be somewhat artificial (when you realised both characters had near-identical superpowers and overall story arcs). The departure of lead actor Michael O'Hare at the end of Season 1 was initially handled well, but his return in Season 3 to resolve his storyline led to the most brain-meltingly complicated two-part story in the history of SF TV, in which his entire story had to be retconned, rewritten and completely changed whilst remaining in the confines of a series of visions experienced by the characters in the first season. It is a Herculean miracle of writing that it makes any sense at all, but it does show that, whilst pre-planning is fantastic, it does have a few drawbacks.

During the time the two shows were on air, several other shows ran which made interesting use of the story arc. The X-Files started off brilliantly in 1993 and by its second season had become a cross-Atlantic phenomenon, its stars on the covers of every major magazine and ratings going through the roof. It was a less insane version of Twin Peaks for the masses, with sharp dialogue and strong direction giving rise to some fantastic episodes based on horror and mystery. The show's story arc, in which lead character Fox Mulder tries to find his missing sister and the true nature of a clandestine government conspiracy involving UFOs whilst being 'investigated' by his partner Dana Scully, was initially compelling, with strong 'mythology' episodes moving the storyline forward at regular intervals. However, as the show continued its sheer success meant that the studio didn't want the mysteries resolved any time soon, so creator Chris Carter kept spinning the show's storylines out further and further. The myth-arc became more and more complex, with shapeshifting alien bounty-hunters, black oil, experiments to turn humans into aliens, the genetic engineering of 'super-soldiers' and yet other elements being crammed into the story. Viewers stopped following the story and grew more bored with the mythology, to the point where the 'myth' episodes were less popular than the stand-alones (in sharp contrast to Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine's corresponding 'arc episodes'). The X-Files was cancelled after nine seasons with the central storyline unresolved and the audience not really caring any more.

In 1995, Steven Bocho, the creator of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and LA Law, developed a new project. He had hit on the idea of doing a show about a legal case which unfolded over several months. A common criticism of TV drama series had been that they were inherently unrealistic, often featuring a crime, the arrest of an alleged perpetrator, bail proceedings, a legal investigation, a full trial and verdict all within the space of 45 minutes. Bocho concurred, but by the mid-1990s had come to believe that viewers were now ready for a more challenging approach by allowing one complex case to develop over the course of a full season. Murder One was the result. In the first episode a Hollywood actor is accused of the murder of a young girl, and he calls on the help of attorney Ted Hoffman and his team. Hoffman and his associates spend the next twenty-odd episodes investigating the case, eventually exonerating their client. The series attracted plaudits for the idea, its execution and its greater realism and accuracy, with the long-brewing storyline allowing greater character and story development. However, the show failed to win a mass audience and ratings soon dropped, with viewers complaining about missing an episode and not being able to catch up again easily. Murder One was cancelled after a second, less impressive season based around shorter cases solved in a few episodes each.

Similar complaints led to the cancellation of two other arc-heavy series. Dark Skies, created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman, ran for a single season in 1996-97 but is notable for being the first post-Babylon 5 show to have a pre-planned story arc. Using the tagline, "History as we know it is a lie," the show's backstory saw aliens launching a clandestine takeover of the Earth in the 1960s, opposed by an American government agency of dubious morality called Majestic-12. The show was designed so that each season would span a decade or more, with Season 2 planned to span the 1970s, Season 3 the 1980s and Season 4 climaxing in 'real-time' with the first day of the new millennium, when the alien invasion would become public knowledge. The remaining season and a half would depict the public fight against the aliens. The show cleverly played on X-Files imagery without ripping off the other show, with a richly-depicted 1960s background and a much less enigmatic storyline taking the show in a different direction. Dark Skies failed to attract a major audience and it was cancelled after one season, although it did provide a boost to the careers of Eric Close (later to star on Without a Trace) and Jeri Ryan (who went almost straight from working on Dark Skies to appearing on Star Trek: Voyager as Seven-of-Nine).

Meanwhile, musician Shaun Cassidy had developed a sideline in writing television and in 1995 launched a show called American Gothic, starring Gary Cole as the apparently satanic sheriff of a small town who binds people to him by agreeing to solve their problems in return for them owing him a 'favour', which usually involves a painful sacrifice of some kind. The show's dark atmosphere and its surprisingly bleak tone (the 'good guys' win very few victories against the evil Sheriff Buck) saw it cancelled after one season, despite the development of a strong, arc-based storyline. Ten years later, Cassidy did it all over again with a new show called Invasion, which was similarly critically lauded, lasted one season, and was promptly cancelled.

The glut of serialised series which began in the mid-1990s only to be quickly cancelled can probably be explained by the greater difficulties in allowing newcomers to get quickly up to speed with the storylines. In the mid-1990s this was a difficult process, with the Internet not in widespread use, no facility for downloading (legally or otherwise) TV episodes quickly and often many months elapsing between the end of a season and it appearing on VHS, not to mention that collecting a series on VHS (with only two episodes per tape being the norm) was extremely expensive and space-consuming. Thus, the break-out of heavily serialised TV series was held off for a time when a more user-friendly medium would appear to allow the rapid and relatively cheap catching up on missed episodes.

Babylon 5
, made relatively cheaply and with strong VHS sales, was a notable exception to this tendency, whilst The X-Files's lack of major story developments, frustrating to regular viewers, also helped win over the casual audience despite its backstory.

Meanwhile, other answers to the serialised-storytelling 'problem' were being explored by two rather different TV showrunners.

The first was a guy called Larry David, who had co-created a sitcom based (very loosely) on the life of his friend Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld was a massive success, the biggest American sitcom of the decade (although it's almost unknown here in the UK), all the more amazingly due to its relentlessly bleak and cynical tone: a key show guideline was, "No hugging, no learning." The show started using ongoing story elements early on, since David found the idea of people's lives being neatly encapsulated in 25-minute segments where no-one refers to what happened the previous week to be utterly ludicrous. Hence, main characters sometimes dated recurring other characters for several weeks rather than just for one episode and that was it, whilst character relationships would develop and change over time.

In the fourth season David and Seinfeld took this to the next level and thoroughly blew the audience's minds by introducing them to a meta-narrative: the (fictional) characters of Seinfeld and George (who is based on Larry David's real-life persona) develop and propose to NBC a sitcom based on the (fictional) Seinfeld's career as a stand-up comedian. The fictional show used many of the same gags, ideas and catchphrases as the real show (which in turn were derived from Seinfeld and David's real-life experiences). Over the course of the fourth season the show-within-a-show was developed, eventually culminating in a pilot being shot and then the show being turned down. It was a fantastic idea and was very successful. For the seventh season they decided to do it again, with George proposing to his girlfriend in the first episode and then spending the remainder of the season trying to get out of the wedding, culminating in a shock ending to the season. In both cases, the idea was straightforward: not having a series-spanning arc, but merely just one spanning a season. It's easier for an audience to follow and if you miss out on too many episodes you can usually just jump back in at the start of the next season.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion was Joss Whedon. Having previously written or co-written a number of successful movies (such as Toy Story), Whedon's show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, based on an earlier, cult movie, began airing in 1997 to immediate success. The show featured a female 'vampire slayer', a teenage girl named Buffy who was the 'chosen one', the only person in the world capable of standing up against the vampires and demons who threatened mankind. Driven by smart, funny dialogue and some winning performances by the main cast, Buffy was a big hit. A strong element of the success of the 12-episode first season was its story arc: Buffy arrives at a new school, discovers it's been built over a portal into hell, and gradually acquires a circle of friends to help her stand against the forces of evil. In the first season a vampire called 'The Master' is trying to open the Hellmouth and plunge the world into darkness, and seems to be protected by a prophecy that states he will kill the Slayer. This story arc is resolved satisfyingly at the end of Season 1 with the Master defeated and the prophecy circumvented (kind of).

For the longer, 22-episode second season, Whedon decided to do this again, introducing British vampires Spike and Drusilla as a new, recurring foe. However, aware that pacing the storyline across 22 episodes would be trickier, he introduced his trademark 'mid-season twist', with the arrival of a much bigger, more threatening enemy at the mid-season point to shake things up as they threatened to get stale. Once again, this threat was defeated at the end of the season, although the ramifications to Buffy's character and confidence were significant, and echoed into the third season.This set-up, with each season featuring a 'Big Bad' that had to be defeated and the presence of a mid-season twist in the story, was largely followed throughout each of the show's seven seasons, mostly successfully. An exception was the fifth season, in which the mid-season twist wasn't the emergence of a new foe but instead a personal tragedy that makes Buffy's life much harder, whilst in the sixth season the 'Big Bad' was actually rather pathetic and unthreatening, and only existed to trigger the release of the real 'Big Bad' in the season finale.

Whedon's formula - pre-planned story arcs, but only planned in detail one season ahead - was successful and it worked quite well, although the clockwork-like rise of a new major enemy every yeard did get a little predictable. Buffy was also helped by the fact that its VHS releases were done by season (rather than just two episodes per tape), allowing fans to 'binge' on numerous episodes in a day and catch up with previous seasons quickly. The show was also helped by the arrival of the DVD format during its run, and the show quickly embraced the new format.

With Buffy a success, Whedon developed a spin-off, Angel, that debuted in 1999. Cleverly, Whedon decided not to repeat the 'Big Bad' formula of Buffy and instead introduced a constant enemy, a demonic law firm called Wolfram & Hart which became Angel's enemy in the first episode and remained a constant threatening force in the background for the show's entire run. The show's dominant story arcs also crossed seasons, with a major storyline begun halfway through Season 2 continuing to the end of Season 3, for example, and its consequences set up the apocalyptic fourth season (which saw Angel and Wolfram & Hart reluctantly join forces against a far greater, mutual threat). Angel was also a hit, winning audiences larger than Buffy's on quite a few occasions, but with Buffy ending after seven seasons in 2003 it was decided to also end Angel (after five) the following year.

Whedon's success in these two shows encouraged him to develop a new show set in a new universe that would feature a slow-burning, long-form story arc that would gradually unfold over several years. It would feature Whedon's strongest characters, some of his best writing and several of the finest episodes to come out of any of his shows. It was called Firefly, it was insanely ambitious and it was mercilessly killed by the network after fourteen episodes. Due to sheer willpower (and some industry contacts), Whedon successfuly got a modestly successful feature film made, Serenity, which wrapped up some of the storylines left dangling by the series. Once again, the problems of creating a heavily arc-dependent series only for it to end prematurely had become clear.

By now it was the early 2000s and the advent of DVD and the massive booming in popularity of the Internet had placed the arc show in a very different place to where it had been previously. Next time, I'll be looking at HBO, the new Battlestar Galactica, a TV show called Avatar (no relation to the movie), a TV series about the world's most indestructible (and sleep-deprived) man and bringing the story up to date.


RobB said...

First, you really should get paid somehow for all these articles

Second, for the life of me, I can't guess what the indestructible man is. I know I'll slap myself when you reveal the answer.

Third, does the show CRIMINAL MINDS air in the UK?

Unknown said...

I'm guessing Jack Bauer from 24, because of the sleep deprived comment.

Adam Whitehead said...

Yes, although I've never seen it.

The indestructible man has had A LOT of very bad days, a fantastic cell phone deal and possesses the magical ability to travel right across Los Angeles in the space of 45 minutes at peak traffic times with no hold-ups.

rakeback said...

The best tv show ever! I have seen every episodes multiple times, but my favorite is the one with the librarian cop named Bookman. The way Curb got the whole cast together again was great to watch.

Adam Whitehead said...

The 'never seen it' comment was about CRIMINAL MINDS, sorry. I have seen 24, including all of Season 1 and half of Season 2.

CURB's way of letting Larry David have his cake and eat it in doing a SEINFELD reunion show but not doing it was brilliant.

"We've already ruined one finale."
"We didn't ruin the finale! That was a good finale!"

RobB said...

CURB is a brilliantly funny show.

CRIMINAL MINDS is very good show, despite a couple of cast re-shuffles. The writing is very good-FWIW, outside of LOST it is probably my favorite dramatic show on TV right now. It has some minor flaws, but it delivers good entertainment.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

I think these articles are brilliant & second the comment that you should get paid for them.

Jebus said...

I third the comment about the articles, you should try and sell them to a print publication.

I'm amazed that Seinfeld didn't take off in the UK, it was pretty big here in Australia and I still count it as my favourite comedy series of all time. It's being re-run (in a somewhat random order) here every night on a new TV station and I try and re-catch every episode that I can.

Also - his name is Bochco, not Bocho and Murder One was excellent (both seasons) not least o which it introduced me to Mary McCormack who later appeared int he last few seasons of another great story arc show, The West Wing.

I never got into babylon 5 but after just re-re-re-re-watching the entire 7 seasons of The West Wing on DVD (an almost yearly occurrence for me) and sick of waiting to see or download TV shows I've been thinking it might be a good idea to start buying shows on DVD and watching entire seasons in a row. It's just so much more easier than week-t-week viewing, especially with shows with long story arcs. Also I have yet to see the last season of DS9 even though I consider it my favourite Trek series.

Tree Frog said...

I know you're focusing on the dramas and not so much on episodic/story-arcing SF. However, it seems to me that the shows that popped up in the later part of the '90s and all of the '00s got somewhat of a boost from people my age who came up watching the first live-action SF kids show I can remember: Power Rangers.

Those shows demonstrated that there was a significant demand for this kind of stuff - even if PR did handle the arc stuff rather shoddily.

In a way that PR show was sort of the opening avenue of Terry Brooks to my exploration of the field in general.

Terrific series of pieces though, Wert.

Unknown said...

Seriously impressed by this article! I'll be going back and reading parts one and two. I was especially impressed with your analysis of what made story arcs work, and where they fell flat. As a learning writer, I'm always interested in that kind of analysis.

More people should be reading these articles. Very cool!