“What about the United States” is, of course, a terribly weird move to make right now. After all, by the time The Christmas Invasion, which we’ll deal with on Monday, aired in the UK, exactly zero episodes of the new series had aired in the United States. Indeed, the airing of Series One in the US coincided with much of the airing of Series Two in the UK. The show’s US popularity lagged the UK by a quite massive margin. So for the most part the question of Doctor Who in America will be tabled until Matt Smith and BBC America, who do, shall we say, rather a better job with the show.
Still, let’s talk about its initial American context on the Sci-Fi Channel. The Sci-Fi Channel is one of the most unfortunate ideas in television history. It was launched as a cable channel in the early 90s, when cable was expanding and everybody thought cult television was actually a way to make money. (A year before The X-Files, then.) Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case. Sci-Fi Channel’s original plan of running old cult series acquired cheap never quite took off, and their forays into original programming were, for the most part, similarly unsuccessful. On the occasions they created good programs – Farscape, for instance, which actually ran after Doctor Who Confidential on BBC Three – they usually ran into the problem that good cult-style science fiction was expensive to create and drew too small an audience to be worth it, which is where most science fiction of this sort falls down. Farscape was good, intelligent, funny, and never attracted ratings high enough for a marginal cable channel like Sci-Fi to produce it.
It’s worth noting that even though science fiction is broadly popular, there’s virtually none of it that’s done in the old cult model anymore. Anyone pitching a high-budget science fiction action-adventure serial aimed squarely at males 18-35 is going to be laughed out of the room. Seriously, is there even a single show that works that way anymore? I’m pretty sure they’ve all adopted some version of the high emotional content/soap opera plotting approach now. (The last arguable survivor I can think of, Warehouse 13, is slated for demolition next year, and is hardly primarily a male audience anyway. Maybe Arrow? I’ve not bothered to watch.) And accordingly, the Sci-Fi Channel, these days rebranded as the non-committal and more trademarkable SyFy, steadily became a shockingly low rent channel known for deliberate pieces of cheese like Sharktopus, more ghost hunting than you can shake a stick at, and a lot of professional wrestling. (A parenthetical on this, as it may well be an entirely US thing – professional wrestling is not actually a sport but a simulated one in which results are pre-determined and stuntmen perform fake wrestling matches according to long-running plotlines. Basically, it’s a gobsmackingly homoerotic soap opera that pretends to be a sports competition. So like the Premier League, only with more match-fixing.) Of the actual genre content they have, fully half of it is imported from other countries, usually Canada.
It’s tempting to suggest that the most damning evidence of the Sci-Fi Channel’s incompetence was their initial decision to turn down Doctor Who in 2005. This may not be entirely fair, however. After all, as we’ve seen the Eccleston season is very specifically aimed at British television, and would port oddly at best to the US. And did, in fact. I’m speaking purely anecdotally, but the number of US fans for whom the Eccleston series really did prove a stumbling block in a way that the Smith material doesn’t is staggering. And it’s really not surprising, because Smith jumps in with fairly universally recognizable things, whereas Eccleston jumps in with British soaps, an extended Tony Blair/Iraq War parody, and culminates in British reality television. It’s not exactly US accessible, not least because save for The Unquiet Dead and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances it’s miles away from heritage theme park Britain.
On the other hand, this is the Sci-Fi Channel we’re talking about, and it’s notable that they reversed course as soon as it was obvious that there was, in fact, demand for Doctor Who and that it was popular in the UK. Let’s not give them too much credit. (The more interesting question is really why it didn’t go to BBC America, the answer seeming to be that the BBC took something of an all-or-nothing approach and was unwilling to see it go to what was then still quite a small channel. The problem is that the resulting gap was so big that there was barely a US Doctor Who fan alive who didn’t know how to use BitTorrent, and nothing Sci-Fi Channel did consisted of actually trying to shrink that gap substantively. Even in Series Four they didn’t start airing it until after it had finished in the UK. BBC America, on the other hand, quickly demonstrated a willingness to treat the program as an a-list property instead of as something to burn off when they were bored, as Sci-Fi Channel always did.)
In any case, while Doctor Who was languishing on the Sci-Fi Channel it was generally paired on the schedule with Battlestar Galactica, either running during weeks when Battlestar Galactica was not on the air, or forming a Friday-night programming block. This alone signifies the sort of show that the Sci-Fi Channel assumed both were, Fridays being a particularly low-rated night of television that was, by tradition dating back to The X-Files, reserved for cult shows. (In a sign of the inevitable, the programming block was called Sci-Fi Fridays, setting up a fairly obvious question about what the other six days on the Sci-Fi Channel might be.)
In many ways it is difficult to imagine two shows that are a poorer fit for one another. Doctor Who is generally fairly light drama, and is generally characterized by a tone of joy. Battlestar Galactica is a doom-laden deconstruction of space opera in which the genocide of all of humanity is continually an imminent threat. But under the hood the similarities are largely clear. Both, in their own ways, are rejections of cult television, Doctor Who in its determined staking out of a position in the mainstream, Battlestar Galactica in its aggressive deconstruction of the standard tropes of the genre in favor of hard-edged social realism and aggressively filmic visuals.
What is perhaps most important about Battlestar Galactica is that it is a remake of a proper cult property – a 1970s television series done in the aftermath of Star Wars that was briefly popular but that aged terribly and was an utter cheese festival. The thing about the reimagined Battlestar Galactica is that it never seems to take the original series all that seriously. Unlike Doctor Who, which honors its camp past, Battlestar Galactica is ultimately a refutation of the original that decides to take its shockingly ambitious premise – robots destroy all of humanity, and the last few survivors go looking for the lost human colony of Earth – and actually take it seriously. The series honored its past in places, but increasingly cut those places down as it went on. Perhaps more notable was its ability to piss off fans of the original in spectacular and embarassing ways, most notably when a washed up Dirk Benedict wrote a jaw-droppingly sexist piece bemoaning the fact that Starbuck, his character in the original, had been changed to a female character in the new series, calling the new character – who was in practice the series’ breakout part – “Stardoe.”
It was, in other words, easy for anyone who enjoyed science fiction but wasn’t nearly as fond of science fiction fans to ally themselves with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. In practice Battlestar Galactica was made to look like a “serious drama” in the HBO mould. It wasn’t cult television so much as it was about cult television. The biggest problem with it was that it never quite shook the sense that this was accidental. The fourth series – and I’ll go ahead and say I thought it was marvelous – descended down a rabbit hole of the spiritual implications of the series that ultimately failed to appeal to most of the people who actually enjoyed it. (I loved it, for what it’s worth, but have no trouble seeing why others hated it. That said, the fact that you can tell people that the series ends with a Cylon dance sequence and have them not believe you remains some of the most fun that can be had when hooking people on television series.) There’s a nagging sense that Ronald D. Moore, the main writer of the series, was in the end a cult sci-fi writer who got inexplicably lucky with that series.
It’s easy to see why. For one thing, Battlestar Galactica is anchored by Edward James Olmos, a heavyweight of a serious actor who was not generally associated with sci-fi roles. (He was approached to be captain for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but declined out of lack of interest.) Olmos, along with Mary McDonnell, give the show a tremendous weight and seriousness, as does its at times ostentatious sense of visual structure. Not, to be clear, just its special effects, although it sets a new standard for spaceship porn, but its entire visual grammar, from lighting to camera angles to editing. With a lesser cast and crew the material could easily have been revealed as wooden and superficial, but instead it sparkled and formed one of the great canonical TV shows of its era.
The heart of it, of course, was its grounding in the social realist tradition. Battlestar Galactica was a show about people. This was true on multiple levels. On the one hand, it was very much a political show that tackled Bush-era political concerns like the rights of prisoners, torture, terrorism, and all that fun stuff. In that regard its ending in early 2009 was perfect – it’s a show whose basic concerns belonged to the Bush administration. This gave it an aggressive materialism that its original version, which was mostly about the many pleasures of gold lamé, had no real hope of. But it was also about people on the level of character drama. The characters on Battlestar Galactica were, by sci-fi standards, thoroughly well-rounded and complex, with most of them having both great and tragic aspects. This, of course, has largely become standard practice: doing a genre show without well-rounded characters who drive the drama is unthinkable. Everything in genre fiction is, these days, supposed to stem from character traits and the human element. We can discuss whether perhaps this has gone too far in 2013 and it’s time for a course correction back towards the fantastic, but in 2006 it was a titanic breath of fresh air and self-evidently exactly what science fiction needed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Sci-Fi Channel never quite seemed to know what to do with it. For all its acclaim it could never build the ratings needed to justify its cost. The HBO production model, where shows are funded because people pay a monthly fee to subscribe to HBO, doesn’t quite port to basic cable. Sci-Fi couldn’t cancel it, but was frequently oddly obtuse about renewal, and consciously drew the whole thing to a close after just four seasons. It attempted a spin-off prequel called Caprica, but that died after a season, and a second spin-off was ultimately relegated to being a webseries.
Which is, perhaps, the real story and metaphor here. Presented with what were, by almost any reasonable measure, the two greatest science fiction shows running in the middle of the decade, the Sci-Fi Channel couldn’t figure out what to do with either and frittered both away. Because apparently good science fiction and all of the channels science fiction had previously existed in were, as of this point, simply irreconcilable. The cult model, in 2006, simply didn’t work anymore. To do science fiction without a real and imminent connection to the material had become unthinkable.