02 January 2010

Bringing in the new year with some sci-fi (2)

The other sci-fi that I watched on New Year's Day (via iPlayer) was the last 5 episodes of series 1 of Defying Gravity, which were excellent - making it all the more frustrating that the show has been cancelled. I'll elaborate on this a bit as it's an object lesson - both about the way the US TV industry works and in how NOT to write a long-running TV series.

Most readers will not be familiar with Defying Gravity as it has received bugger all publicity either in the UK (where it aired on BBC2) or in the US (where the final five episodes weren't even shown AFAIK). So some explanation of the genesis of the series is in order. A few years ago there was a documentary called Voyage to the Planets which presented a dramatisation of a tour of the planets Venus, Mars, (the moons of) Jupiter, (the rings of Saturn) and Pluto. [Before someone pulls me up on this I'll say that the series would now have to have been called "Voyage to the planets and a dwarf planet", but we'll let that slide.]

The idea for Defying Gravity came about when series creator James Parriott realised that Voyage to the Planets would be an excellent concept to base a sci-fi drama around. He duly sketched out the first three seasons for a planned six-season story arc and secured funding from an international consortium of TV production companies including the BBC. ABC picked up the series for transmission in the US.

Defying Gravity premiered on the BBC in October with less than a bang - if I hadn't stumbled across the second episode while flicking through channels I wouldn't have known about it. The lack of publicity for the series seems baffling given the amount it presumably cost - hardware-based sci-fi is not cheap, so why the hell spend all that money and let the show slip under the radar? Viewing figures were crap, and so, like so many promising shows, DG was cancelled at the first opportunity.

Looking back at the first half of the season I can understand, frankly, why most people who did manage to find the show couldn't be bothered tuning in again. Until about episode seven, almost nothing of consequence happens. There are occasional references to a thing called "Beta" which appears to be altering crew-members' physiology and giving them hallucinations, but the pace of the show is glacial at this point. Huge portions of each episode's 45 minute running time are devoted to flashbacks of the astronauts' training programme, which are often enlightening but take a LOOONNGG time and break up the narrative. And the main character is named after a kebab. I was really marginal about watching further episodes after about episode three - and I like sci-fi. Your average punter would have just given up, believe me.

Which is a pity, because after episode seven the series takes a huge upward turn in quality. The episode eight (just after mid-season?) cliffhanger is superb, and episodes nine to thirteen (transmitted by the BBC in the space of about a week, in a desperate attempt to get them out of the way before Xmas) are much, much better than the earlier stuff. But by then it was all too late.

I think the production team shot themselves in the foot hugely by making the first half of season one so boring. Clearly the long-term game plan was for six seasons, visiting one planet per season. But they would have been much better to make the Venus landing the mid-season cliffhanger and then go off to Mars (or wherever the next destination was) in the second half of season one. This would have made the whole thing much more pacey and they could have planned for three or four seasons in total. I think there's a chance they'd still be a going concern if they'd done that.

So that's that for Defying Gravity: gravity maybe, but not cancellation. Ho ho ho. One last thing though: guys, if you are ever making a sci-fi series set in the not too distant future again, unless someone has managed to change the speed of light there should be a communications gap of a few minutes between Earth and Venus. Which means that instantaneous telephone-style conversations between mission control and the ship are a no-no. Stanley Kubrick realised this in 2001 but it seems to have been forgotten either by the DG production team, or by TV executives who insisted on disregarding the laws of physics for the sake of drama. Which is a real shame. By messing up such a basic scientific point you almost feel that the show deserved to go down the plughole.

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