|We could be watchable|
(Just for one season)
At the other end of Series Two we discussed The Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who’s initial stablemate in US television. Then we discussed the way in which the cult model of television that dominated science fiction television throughout the wilderness years was in full retreat. From the perspective of this blog, of course, this is obvious – we’ve been tracking the inadequacies of cult television since cult television was invented, and have explicitly positioned Doctor Who as a show that moves beyond the limited scope of the cult ghetto. But it would be a mistake to suggest that the transformation of genre television was exclusively a UK phenomenon.
This is also, I suppose, obvious – after all, ground zero for the new genre television was Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997 – an American show. Doctor Who follows in its footsteps and dutifully paid its debts to Buffy in School Reunion, and the influence will continue in Torchwood, particularly in its second season, which opens with the most mind-wrenching piece of fanservice ever filmed. But that describes only a particular type of genre television – generally fantasy/horror based, often with younger leads. There’s a second type of conventional genre television worth talking about. This second type of television actually got its start in 2004 with the debut of ABC’s Lost, but for a variety of reasons we’re going to postpone discussion of that particular series for a few months.
Broadly speaking, however, this second type of series is characterized by “five minutes in the future”-style sci-fi settings, large ensemble casts, and a focus on slowly unraveling mysteries. While Lost is certainly the template for the subgenre, for our purposes what’s most interesting at the moment is Heroes, a 2006-debuting NBC series about people developing superpowers. Tremendously popular in its first season (it competed for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo award in 2008, but lost to the film version of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), Heroes declined rapidly over subsequent seasons, slouching to cancellation in its fourth season.
Dissecting what went wrong is not actually hard. The end of the fourth season – seventy-seven episodes in (which is to say, the equivalent of The Curse of the Black Spot for the new series) it still hadn’t gotten around to making the existence of superheroes public knowledge within its world, setting that up for its intended but never realized sixth chapter (a concept distinct from a season within Heroes). Given that its premise was in practice just a retread of things like J. Michael Straczynski’s comic series Rising Stars and Warren Ellis’s newUniversal, themselves just updating of Alan Moore’s seminal Marvelman run in the 1980s, it is difficult to come up with a good explanation for this. “What if superheroes existed in the real world” was not, in 2006, a new premise in any sense other than it not having been done on television, or, at least, not in a form anyone remembered.
Given this, the basic narrative conservatism of Heroes was a flaw. The series kept holding back and contriving to avoid letting its premise have too much impact on the world, trying desperately to remain couched in the quasi-domestic sphere that exists in its first (and actually popular/good) season. This too can easily be seen as just a reaction to Lost, which melds the sci-fi world of the Island with the domestic world of its pre-crash flashbacks. Heroes avoids going too far into its sci-fi premise for no other reason than that the show it’s aping constantly remains in the domestic. As a result, it bogged down badly without anything happening.
What’s more interesting, in many ways, is the strange line Heroes held between “mainstream entertainment” and “cult television.” The basic structural appeal of the Lost/Heroes format is that the large ensemble cast allows the plotting to work like a soap opera. This is, as we’ve noted previously, largely considered the holy grail of television writing. That is not entirely difficult to understand – soap operas and science fiction are, essentially, the two twentieth century forms to use extreme serialization as a narrative structure. People have been noting that superhero comics in the post-Kirby/Lee era and soap operas are barely distinguishable in plotting for decades. Except that superhero comics and sci-fi are famously “for boys,” and soap operas are famously “for girls.” So, the logic goes, if only you could get sci-fi that worked like a soap opera you could combine the audiences and take over the world.
Heroes is, in light of that logic, seems like the most cravenly obvious television series ever pitched – let’s do a superhero story with a massive ensemble cast and soap opera structures. You can even go through the cast and see the demographically-tailored selections, most obviously Sendhil Ramamurthy, a breathtakingly one-note actor whose sole note is “monstrously sexy,” and who blatantly exists for female viewers to latch onto. (In a telling error that shows just how little the makers of Heroes actually understand how to target their show, there are no obvious slash pairings for Mohinder Suresh) Given this, what is perhaps most surprising about Heroes is the sheer determination with which it targeted the cult audience.
Heroes is notable in part for being the first moment in which American television overtly responds to the new series of Doctor Who. A short ways into its first season it cast Christopher Eccleston in a guest-starring role. Although visually distinct from Eccleston’s Doctor, the series goes out of its way to have the character say “Fantastic,” and he’s clearly being directed to just reprise the part. More telling is the shot in the episode “Company Man” in which it’s contrived to have Christopher Eccleston and Eric Roberts in frame together for what is blatantly no other reason than having a shot of the Doctor and the Master. None of this, nor the use of George Takei as Hiro’s father, nor the gratuitous license plate of Takei’s car (exactly the license plate you’d expect) serves any visible purpose other than providing fan-service for the cult television die-hards.
On the one hand, this sort of engagement makes pragmatic sense. The cult audience is an intended portion of the show’s overall audience, and catering to them is just good practice. On the other hand, the choice to start this with Eccleston is bizarre. It’s not that casting Eccleston doesn’t make sense – he’s a marvelous actor, and casting him always makes sense. It’s that he was visibly cast because he’d just finished up a year on Doctor Who, as a shout-out to that audience. The thing is, even if every single American Doctor Who fan tuned into Heroes because Eccleston was on it, it wouldn’t make a substantial difference in its ratings because Heroes was a flagship network show and Doctor Who was an obscure British import on cable. There just wasn’t enough of an American Doctor Who audience in the fall of 2006 to make using Eccleston as part of the series’ commitment to fanservice make any sense.
Except inasmuch as what mattered was not the fanservice as such but the appearance of it. Heroes didn’t want Doctor Who’s audience – that would be silly. It wanted to be the sort of show that referenced obscure British sci-fi. (And in 2006, at least, Doctor Who in the US was still extremely obscure – Tom Baker was still better known than Christopher Eccleston.) Which, fine – Heroes was a pioneering show in terms of multimedia marketing, accompanying itself with loads of comics and web-exclusives, and the decision to appropriate Doctor Who fits relatively smoothly into that.
But if that’s the case, what’s really bizarre is all the stuff they didn’t nick. As previously observed, Heroes gets its premise from a raft of comic books. Unlike any of those comics, however, Heroes never allows its premise to go too far or to develop too substantively. The idea of superheroes among us never gets to change that much, and when they finally decide to let it it feels like a last desperate stunt from a show trying to get its audience back. So what we have is the bizarre spectacle of a show that’s willing to overtly reference obscure British sci-fi, but that isn’t willing to reference or emulate its own obvious source material
The crux of this seems to be a basic anxiety: its writers (who include numerous people who are definitely geeks – the series quickly poached Jeph Loeb, an experienced comics writer, and at various times had Mark Verheiden and Bryan Fuller, both of whom have solid geek credentials, on writing staff) are also clearly convinced that if they go too far in aping Rising Stars or Marvelman they’ll lose the mainstream audience. And so they stay in a holding pattern, cramming in shout-outs to the cult audience but taking any actually successful bit of superhero storytelling as a negative example to be run away from at all cost. It wears thin terribly quickly. But what’s telling is that it’s a version of the same anxiety that Doctor Who is clearly working through in Series Two whereby it simultaneously embraces and runs from the classic series.
All of which is to say that even as the wall between cult and mainstream came tumbling down a level of anxiety remained. The idea that appealing to cult audiences means turning off mainstream ones has a stubborn hold, and everyone working in the vicinity of the concept finds themselves frantically trying to avoid going too far down the cult rabbit hole. This essential tension eventually killed off Heroes, although to be fair, more fundamental problems like the fact that there was obviously not actually any endpoint that Heroes was building to were probably equally bad. (To be clear, the issue is not whether or not the creators have an ending in mind, but whether they give the sense of building. Battlestar Galactica famously didn’t plan out its ending in advance, but the creators succeeded in advancing the story in a way that built up to an ending and then created one when the time came. Heroes appeared to run in place, approaching no actual development.)
I mention all of this, of course, because Doctor Who is about to acquire a new spinoff in the form of Torchwood, and this presents a new set of problems. On paper Torchwood is designed to cater to adult Doctor Who fans, airing on a specialty channel, post-watershed. It’s tempting to suggest that the idea is “Doctor Who for grownups,” but almost immediately the problems with that become apparent: it becomes targeted at an audience of obsessives. If the adult Doctor Who fan population were sufficient to sustain a series then Russell T Davies’s myriad of inventions wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. And so from the start Torchwood had to figure out ways of distinguishing itself from its parent series on grounds more substantive than “only with sex,” and specifically to avoid the dreaded “cult” classification.
But in 2006 there still weren’t exactly what you’d call a lot of models for that. Doctor Who succeeded by positioning itself as the biggest thing on television by design, trading off the fact that the series wasn’t “cult” in the least for a substantial period of its past. Torchwood, however, has no such advantages – it’s in BBC Three and is a new series. In fact, to start, Torchwood seemed to have a wealth of disadvantages, beginning as it did with a bunch of mysteries surrounding Captain Jack that it inherited from Doctor Who, and spinning out of a series-long plot. Which meant that when “Everything Changes” aired we started from the position of “what the heck is this show even going to be about and like,” and most of the obvious answers didn’t exactly seem promising. The nearest model was the Lost/Heroes style, which, while promising looking in 2006, was already coming terribly close to revealing its limitations. Past that, nobody had done sci-fi/fantasy for mainstream television in years.
Which brings us nicely to Wednesday.