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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Why “The Watchers on the Wall” Was the Best Episode of Game of Thrones Yet

Go read or at least glance at this article from Wired before you read what follows. Don’t worry. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Now, I wish somebody would give me a convincing explanation, as that article tried to do and failed, of why last Sunday’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones‘ fourth season is inferior to the penultimate episode of Season Two, “Blackwater.” Yes, this seems to be the common wisdom (and became the common wisdom about three nanoseconds after the episode ended), but I don’t get it.

SPOILERS FOR SEASON TWO OF GAME OF THRONES

The Battle of Blackwater

One really cool special effect!

“Blackwater” had two things going for it, Peter Dinklage and a really cool wildfire effect, but otherwise it was all about saving the despicable Lannister family from the slightly less despicable (but still despicable) Stannis Baratheon. Not much to root for there, except Tyrion, the only non-despicable Lannister, and maybe Sansa Stark, who had the misfortune to get caught up in all this. Tyrion used the wit and strategic cleverness that nobody in his family gives him credit for to win the battle that nobody else in King’s Landing had the guts to fight, and thus both he and Sansa were saved. Yay. And, yes, it was tragic that Tyrion’s father came in at the last minute to steal all the credit for it from him. But otherwise, am I supposed to have cared which side won? The best thing I can say for the Lannisters is that they’ve got Tyrion. The worst thing I can say about Stannis is that he has all the charisma of slime mold. It’s hard to root for the lesser of two evils, especially when you’re not even sure which evil that is.

SPOILERS FOR LAST SUNDAY’S EPISODE

Mammoth

Winter: Still coming!

“The Watchers on the Wall,” on the other hand, was about the show’s central theme: Winter is coming. And with it are coming things that will destroy the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a place where people are too busy squabbling over the throne to care that giants with mammoths are getting ready to eat their children. (That was not based on any spoilerish foreknowledge from the books but on a reasonable guess about what the stakes are.) This was about people fighting over something that, in the world of the show, genuinely matters: keeping the horrors that are north of the Wall from getting south of the Wall. This was about the few, the not-so-happy few, the band of brothers who are the only ones in Westeros who understand how important what they’re doing is and are willing to die for it despite the fact that nobody else gives a flying f*** about them or will ever think themselves accursed because they weren’t there. This was about stakes that were a lot higher than whether a Baratheon or a Lannister is sitting on the throne. This was about saving everybody in the Seven Kingdoms that viewers care about right along with the ones they don’t. This was about stakes that actually made me care who won. This was about stakes that mattered.

But according to the article I linked to above, this episode had less “heft” than “Blackwater” because “Blackwater” had Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in it. As much as I love both Dinklage and the character he plays, that’s not enough. Apparently nobody besides me feels it was sufficient that “The Watchers on the Wall” had Jon Snow, who in case nobody was paying attention has probably just become the most important character in Westeros.

At least until Daenerys and her dragons show up.

Welcome to Level Seven: S.H.I.E.L.D. at PaleyFest

I’ve already blogged more than once about the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not because I think it’s a great show but because I think it could be a great show and because it’s getting better with almost every episode. Shows produced by Joss Whedon, even ones like S.H.I.E.L.D. where he isn’t involved in its production on a day-to-day basis, tend to start out slowly and hit their stride at the end of the first season or even the beginning of the second. Honestly, there are times when I wish I could look into the future and see if S.H.I.E.L.D. is really going to live up to the promise I think it has, because I may just be wasting 60 minutes of my life each week by watching it. But I don’t think I am.

And, as if by magic, I got a peek into the future last weekend and saw next week’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. I can report that it’s getting even better, but it’s still not quite as good as I’d like it to be.

Felicia Day

Geek goddess Felicia Day hosts a panel of tiny little people from the ABC show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

One of the advantages of living in Los Angeles, as I’ve been doing for the last five years, is that you occasionally get the opportunity to look into the future of television, even if it’s only a week into the future. Last Sunday I drove to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (that’s where the annual Academy Awards ceremony is held) to watch part of Paleyfest, an event put on annually by the Paley Center for Media. I was there to watch a panel on S.H.I.E.L.D. and it was an impressive panel indeed, at least in terms of who showed up. Basically the entire regular cast of the show — Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge — were there, as were the show’s three showrunners: Jed Whedon (Joss Whedon’s brother), Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed’s wife) and Jeffrey Bell, along with co-producer Jeph Loeb. The panel was hosted by geek goddess Felicia Day, best known to Joss Whedon fans like myself for her roles in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and several episodes of Dollhouse.

Actually, you didn’t have to live in LA to see this panel. If you knew about it in advance, you could have watched it on streaming video using the PaleyFest app — and maybe you did. But if you were actually at the Dolby Theatre you got to see something extra, something that wasn’t included in the streaming video. You got to see the April 1 episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Jeph Loeb asked all of us to go home and tweet or blog about the episode or at least about how much we liked it. We were advised not to give out spoilers. Yeah, right.

I suspect by now hundreds of attendees have given out spoilers in defiance of Mr. Loeb’s request, so it would be completely redundant for me to do so here. Therefore all I’ll say is that it’s one of the best episodes so far, largely because it focuses purely on the show’s serial arc and doesn’t attempt to stand alone in any way. I suppose it would be a minor **SPOILER** to mention that it centers around J. August Richards’ character Deathlok and the oft-mentioned but never-seen character known as “the Clairvoyant.”

I love serial TV shows and generally don’t care for standalone episodes of those shows, so the mere fact that this episode stuck to the serial arc was enough to make me happy. But it also advanced the serial arc significantly with a few surprises and plot twists, which is more than I can say about most episodes to date. And that’s all you’ll get out of me without inserting flaming bamboo splinters under my fingernails. For more spoilers, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Try Google. Or Twitter.

As for the panel, I have surprisingly little to say about it. It was fun seeing the cast and producer/writers in person, along with the lovely Ms. Day, who I’ve followed on Twitter for a year or two now because she’s a great source of geeky news about Joss Whedon TV shows. In general, though, the conversation on the panel didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know or at least suspect, such as the fact that Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson on the show, is a really nice guy. Twice, he literally leaped off the stage and ran into the audience to give someone a hug, most touchingly when the huggee was a youngish female fan who appeared to have Down Syndrome and was having difficulty articulating her question to the cast. I laughed when Chloe Bennet mentioned that fanfic ‘shippers — fan fiction writers who like to invent relationships between fictional characters from television and elsewhere — had created a romantic couple out of her character (Skye) and Elizabeth Henstridge’s character (Simmons) and were calling the couple “Skimmons.” (A quick check on Google revealed that, yes, there’s actually fanfic about “Skimmons.” It had slipped right past me.) Otherwise, the conversation consisted largely of cast members answering banal questions from the audience like “What superhero would you like to be?” (For the record, not all of the questions were banal. If you were there and asked a question, I can assure you that it wasn’t one of the banal ones. Hey, you’re intelligent enough to be reading my blog, right?)

Also, if you were watching the streaming video you probably saw me without realizing it. When a heavyset guy in a Captain America sweatshirt got up to ask a question, I was the gray-haired guy with glasses over his shoulder on screen right. I reached up twice to touch my glasses, not as a signal to anyone viewing the video stream or as a nervous tic, but to make sure the guy I was seeing on the giant video screen above the panel was actually me. Sure enough, the guy on the video screen reached up to touch his glasses too.

Two other pieces of important news gleaned from the panel — actually, from Jeph Loeb’s introduction to the panel — are that, starting with the April 1 episode, there will be no more interruptions in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. schedule for seven straight episodes, right up through the season finale in May, and the April 8 episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a direct follow-up to the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released to theaters on Friday, April 4. (Hey, that’s today! Better get tickets soon!)

If you saw the screening of next week’s episode or you’re reading this after it’s already appeared on TV, I’d be curious to hear what you thought of it. Feel free to leave a comment on this post.

And keep your fingers crossed that S.H.I.E.L.D. gets renewed (word has it that it will) and that it has the greatest second season of any show in the history of television. Or at least of any show executive-produced by Joss Whedon.

That would make a lot of people, including myself, very happy.