With a Whimper: How Science Fiction Shows Die

I’ve just finished watching the fourth and final season of Continuum, a show I raved about back in 2013. By the final episode I was watching just to get it over with. I’d come this far with the show, I’d be damned if I’d quit before I found out how it ended.

Continuum

There’s nothing left now but the Continuum trading cards.

It was a disappointing experience. Continuum had barely managed to win renewal for a six-episode final season and felt drained of energy as it trudged toward the finale. The budget appeared to be lower than in previous seasons, which is not necessarily bad in itself — Continuum isn’t a show that needs the sort of spectacle it had back in its first year — but there didn’t even seem to be enough money for retakes. If an actor gave a flat line reading, it was in the episode. And the actors were moving through the scripts like zombies. Maybe cast morale was low. After all, they were six episodes away from being out of work.

The last episode, where we finally learned whether Kiera Cameron was able to return to her son in the year 2077, was perfunctory. It more or less resolved the story, albeit with a sad twist at the very end, but there were too many plot threads from earlier seasons that went nowhere and seemed utterly pointless in retrospect. When the final episode arrived there were far too many characters and way too many of them were uninteresting. It was quite a comedown from the brilliant first season.

Continuum. And a bearded guy.

Who is that bearded guy, anyway? And what’s he doing on what used to be a good show?

Yet when I gave it a nanosecond of thought I realized that this is the rule for science fiction shows, not the exception. Remember the wonderfully conceived Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy/Sci-Fi? (Of course you do. It was only six years ago.) It was a beautifully filmed, morally complex show, much like Continuum, yet by the final season it had degenerated into mystical BS. And then there was Lost, which ultimately managed to give mystical BS a bad name. (The other day I came across a blog post by Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach explaining that Lost ended exactly the way they’d planned from the beginning, which didn’t make me feel any better about the hot mess that the show turned into in its final year.)

What about other great science fiction and fantasy shows? Firefly never had a chance to jump the shark because it was cancelled after only fourteen episodes, but that other Joss Whedon show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a funereal, almost tedious final run. (Sister show Angel pulled off a decent final season by the skin of its canine teeth.) Fringe managed to keep it — mostly — together, but it was clear that the six-episode final season renewal (apparently this is a thing now) didn’t give the writers enough space to resolve everything that needed resolving. Characters alluded to events that we hadn’t even seen, suggesting that entire scripts had been dropped. Too bad, because the last season involved a nifty twist that had clearly been planned from the beginning. (Watch the first two seasons again and notice how many hints are dropped about what eventually happens in Season Five.)

The iconic example of a science fiction show that ends with a long, drawn-out whimper was The X-Files. Creator Chris Carter has said that they expected to run for five seasons and they had just enough story for that many, which explains why by the sixth season the show was monotonously vamping its way through its so-called mytharc episodes. Frankly, I still don’t understand what the show’s underlying mythology was about, but maybe the miniseries this coming winter will explain it.

To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with science fiction shows. Most successful shows are allowed to stay on the air until they reach their level of incompetence, with only a few gracefully stepping aside once they’ve put together enough seasons for a syndication package (or a Blu-Ray set). It’s harder to name a show that stayed good until the end than it is to name a show that fell apart. Those two AMC stalwarts Mad Men and Breaking Bad pretty much pulled it off, though both had seen better years than their last ones. Despite a calamitous dip in the middle when showrunner Aaron Sorkin left, The West Wing came close, finishing with a bravura two-season election arc that only faded at the very end, when the death of star John Spencer forced a hasty rewrite of the election results.

In the age of serial television, though, the tendency of shows to plummet in quality toward the end seems particularly regrettable, given that viewers caught up in the continuing plot arcs are reluctant to abandon shows that just aren’t as good as they used to be. (Okay, I’m reluctant. I can’t speak for anybody else.) With a standalone show like Law & Order, there comes a day when you simply stop watching and never look back. But if I’d given up on Continuum, I’d be forever wondering whether Kiera Cameron eventually got back to the future.

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Is Continuum the Greatest Science Fiction Show Ever?

Two or three months ago a miracle occurred. I didn’t inform the press, or even the Vatican, because it wasn’t the kind of miracle that would have meant much to them, but it meant a lot to me. I was surfing TV shows on Netflix Streaming using the app on my Xbox 360 and came across the TV series Continuum. I’d heard about the show, knew that it was Canadian, that it was science fiction, that it ran on Syfy in the U.S., and had a vague recollection that I’d read good things about it, probably on io9 (a terrific Web site that you should be following if you have any interest at all in science or science fiction). I clicked and began watching the first episode.

Continuum

Some of the better-looking members of the massive cast of Continuum

At that moment Amy got home from work and I figured I’d have to turn the show off, because she has no particular interest in science fiction unless it’s really well done and I assumed there wasn’t much chance that Continuum would be on that level. But she didn’t ask me to turn it off and sat on the sofa with me for a few minutes surfing the Web on her MacBook Air preparing to head off to the bedroom to continue her marathon viewing of all seven seasons of The West Wing. (I’d done my own marathon viewing of The West Wing four years earlier, just before I moved in with Amy, and wasn’t quite ready to do it again.)

That’s when the miracle happened.

At some point during the first episode Amy put down the MacBook and started watching the show. When the first episode was over we simply let Netflix flow through to the second and watched that one too. When the second one ended we went back and watched the opening of the first episode again.

“Yeah,” Amy said. “I could watch this.”

Okay, that might not sound like much of a miracle to you, but trust me — it was. I have enough trouble getting Amy to watch really major science fiction TV shows and movies (though I did get her to watch Firefly followed by Serenity); getting her to watch a relatively little known Canadian science fiction series that runs on cable in the U.S. was something I wouldn’t have thought was possible until it happened. Over the next week we binge-watched Continuum’s first season and as soon as Syfy began running Season Two we starting watching that too. We were completely hooked and we plan to rewatch both seasons before the third one begins, just to refresh our memory of all the details. And the amazing part about that is that it was Amy who suggested it!

Yeah, Continuum’s that good. If you’re a science fiction fan or even just a fan of good serial TV shows who isn’t watching it, drop everything you’re doing now (except reading this blog post, which you really should finish) and find a way to watch it. Stream it on Netflix, rent the first season DVDs, or find a fan who’ll let you watch all the episodes on his/her DVR.

What’s so good about Continuum? Let’s start with the minor things first. It’s a good-looking show with a good-looking cast, and they can act. (There were a few moments in the first episode where I wasn’t entirely sure about the acting part, but by the second episode they’d found their range and were nailing their roles to the wall.) It has William B. Davis and Nicholas Lea, who played the cigarette-smoking man and Agent Krycek, respectively, on The X-Files. And if you have fond memories of The X-Files, they’ll rub off on this show. At least it’s also made in Vancouver.) I should add that not only is the cast good-looking and talented but the special effects, primarily in the flashbacks (flashforwards?) to the future, are stunning. (It’s a time travel show, so terms like “flashback” don’t necessarily apply in the way they usually do.)

The main thing that makes it good, though, is the writing. The plot is complex, inventive and — here’s where it really sucks me in — surprisingly morally ambiguous. I have a thing for moral ambiguity in TV shows; it was one of the things that drew me in to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and is certainly one of the major selling points of the superb Breaking Bad. On this show, the moral ambiguity initially revolved around its protagonist Kiera, a protector, i.e., police officer, from the year 2077 who somehow found herself transported back to the year 2011 along with a gang of terrorists she had helped capture and was preparing to see executed. It was obvious almost from the beginning that Kiera, who seemed to be a good person, was working for a dystopian government and the initial question in my own head concerned how long it was going to take her to figure out that she might be on the wrong side. But things rapidly became more complicated as it became clear that there really weren’t good guys and bad guys on this show, just good people, selfish people and idealistic people doing the wrong thing for what they often see as the right reason.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is watching the present grow into the future, gradually spotting the connections between 2077 and 2011 (which by the second season had evolved into 2013). Figuring which young person in the present will become which old person in the future is one of the show’s main joys, especially because their future iterations are often quite different from their present versions, for reasons that are only gradually becoming apparent. And guessing the personal and political allegiances of the various characters as well as their familial relationships provides, if nothing else, a magnificent guessing game, largely because the characters themselves are so interesting and well played.

If the series has a problem, it’s one that io9 pointed out in a recent article, which is that they’ve introduced so many characters, factions and subplots that it may be in danger of falling apart under the weight of its own complexity. I like a good, complex serial TV series as much as the next couch potato, mind you, but a lot of us also remember what happened to shows like The X-Files and Lost, which started out exploring unexpected and exciting depths only to wind up wandering aimlessly through the pointless mazes created by their own writers. I’m choosing for the moment to believe that the showrunners/writers at Continuum know where they’re headed. Indeed, there have been hints in recent episodes that there may be a very large and startling backstory (or would that be frontstory?) underlying all the events in Continuum that so far we’ve only had glimpses of. But pulling off this kind of long-running serial without eventually letting the plot become a confused and confusing mess seems to be difficult. If Continuum can pull it off, though, I’ll happily vote for it, even against candidates like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, as the greatest science fiction series ever.