What to watch in British SF/F TV

1. British TV

[1.1] At the SFRA 2009 meeting the weekend of June 11, I was on a panel moderated by my fearless coeditor, Craig Jacobsen, about what to watch for SF TV. The panel was quite large, so Craig held us to a strict 2-minute time limit. He asked us to prepare remarks about which shows were must-watch shows, and why. Here, I present my choices and briefly explain what I find interesting and worthy about the shows.

[1.2] Because I am particularly interested in British TV, I staked out this area as my own, leaving the usual suspects—Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Heroes—to others. But during our panel’s conversation, I was able to articulate why I had specifically earmarked certain shows as being of interest. Sadly, it wasn’t because of the shows’ uniform excellence: some are virtually unwatchable. Rather, what I found interesting had to do with intersections of these texts with other texts. This makes sense. I am, after all, interested in shared worlds and fan artifacts, and these pro texts feel like fan works: derivative crack that says something about the originary text.

[1.3] Here is my roundup of fun-to-think-about shows (if not fun-to-watch shows, unless you like things that are so bad, they’re good). Several haven’t aired in the United States yet. I discuss the following: Demons, Spooks Code 9, Merlin, Ashes to Ashes, and Primeval. And I briefly mention the Doctor Who franchise: Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Sarah Jane Adventures.

2. Demons

Harker and Rutherford/Van Helsing
Demons’s blind pianist Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper) and demon hunter Luke Rutherford/Van Helsing (Christian Cooke) [1]

[2.1] I can’t say that Demons is the finest six-part miniseries in the history of TV, and in fact I’ve only seen it halfway through because I simply couldn’t bear it. But if you want to talk about popular culture’s reaction to vampires and continuing Bram Stoker’s universe, then it becomes interesting. Mina Harker appears as a blind pianist, and the boy hero, Luke Rutherford/Van Helsing, discovers to his surprise that he’s a demon-killing descendant of Stoker’s famed vampire hunter.

[2.2] This show can interestingly be read as part of the current vampire craze, spawned by Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series, and part of the youth craze, with shows focusing on young adults, in the style of Skins. The miniseries takes Stoker’s universe as read and expands on it, creating more backstory, and in general fleshing out a world inspired by and following on from Stoker’s classic novel. The show expands beyond vampires and into demons, and it posits a whole infrastructure of evil-fighting folks destined to save the world. Horror (demons exist!) and fantasy (a chosen one with heretofore unknown special powers will save the day!) combine to create an alternate reality positing Stoker’s text as the literal truth.

3. Spooks Code 9

[3.1] The six eps that comprise series 1 of Spooks Code 9 provide a SF sequel to stylish, of-the-moment spy drama Spooks, which appears in the United States as MI5. SC9 is targeted to a younger demographic and is clearly lower budget. It’s set a few years in the future, after a nuclear device is detonated by terrorists in London. The British government moves to Manchester, and MI5 recruits a bunch of early 20-something youths, on the premise that their youth will permit them to obtain better intelligence.

[3.2] Of interest to me are the generic intersection between this show and the uniformly excellent Spooks (although sadly, there is no character overlap); the notion of terrorism as pushed forward into the near future; and the social changes that might occur after an attack of this magnitude. The latter in particular is underdone: a few security checkpoints don’t convince me that the world is wholly different, and although some futuristicically cool technology appears, mostly it’s about strikingly attractive young people going undercover in discos while wearing outrageous outfits, then chasing bad guys in exciting foot races. Still, this text is relevant in a post-9/11 world as a 20-minutes-into-the-future thought experiment, even if it doesn’t think very much.

3. Merlin

Merlin
Merlin’s Arthur (Bradley James, second from left) and Merlin (Colin Morgan, third from left) [2]

[3.1] Merlin, which is currently airing in the United States on NBC, riffs interestingly on Sir Thomas Malory’s epic text, Le Morte DArthur (1485), about the sixth-century King Arthur, who may or may not have literally existed. Malory is of course just one writer who has dealt with King Arthur, and many, many other popular texts, both ancient and modern, revisit the story of Camelot. Although the literary corpus is vast, the show doesn’t really deal with it. Rather, it relies on our half-remembered knowledge of tales of Arthur and Camelot, and then turns these remembrances on their head.

[3.2] In the BBC version, Merlin and Guinevere are both servants, Morgana is an orphan and a ward of Uther, and the youthful Merlin’s magical abilities are kept secret upon pain of his death. A dragon chained in some caves delivers timely advice. The show mixes magic and science: Merlin works with the learned physician-scientist Gaius, who is in on the secret of Merlin’s powerful magic. The show’s deliberate anachronisms are part of its charm and help update the program for contemporary viewers. This is not a historical text but a derivative romantic riff on our shared rememberings of the stories: the sword in the stone; Guinevere and Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, and Arthur and Lancelot; Morgana’s incestuous ancestry; the secret of Uther’s winning of his wife; and so on, all lurking in the background, undiscussed.

[3.3] The discontinuity of what we know to be true versus what we see on the screen keeps my interest: how will the show end up making Gwen, a blacksmith’s daughter and servant to Morgana, Arthur’s queen? If Morgana is canonically pure evil, why does she have empathy and do nice things for people? If Arthur is to become a good and noble king, why is he such an arrogant brat? Delicious hints delight us because of our foreknowledge of events: in 1.05 “Lancelot,” Lancelot, a commoner and thus not worthy to join the noble-born knights, comes and goes, little realizing what his fate will be, even as Gwen laughs at the idea of ever having the opportunity to choose between him and Arthur.

4. Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes
Ashes to Ashes time traveler DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) and her new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) [3]

[4.1] The single show I discussed at the panel that I adore unreservedly and applaud as a text worth watching (as opposed to a text worth thinking about, which is an entirely different thing) is Ashes to Ashes. Series 2 finished airing in the UK on June 8. This sequel to the (original) British version of Life on Mars follows Alex Drake, a detective from 2008 who is shot and ends up in 1981, where she fights crime even as she struggles to find her way home.

[4.2] Alternative realities, time travel, dual consciousness, and the immersive evocation of a past time—these are the SFnal central concerns behind the LOM/AA franchise. The questions of identity, time, and the nature of consciousness parallel those of LOM, but AA’s Alex has read Sam Tyler’s reports and thus feels better equipped to handle her predicament. With a background in psychology, she is more thoughtful and introspective than Tyler was, and with someone to go home to—her daughter—she is particularly motivated to figure out how to get back. The lingering question behind the two series may be answered in AA series 3, which the BBC has green-lighted: it will focus on Gene Hunt, and it promises to some closure to the AA series 2 finale as well as the status of Sam Tyler in LOM:

“Fans have theorised since Life On Mars and throughout Ashes To Ashes about who Gene Hunt actually is and what his alternative world really means,” said a spokesperson for the show. “The climax of series three will finally reveal all in a stunning finale.” [source]

[4.3] I won’t spoil the ending of AA series 2, except to say that that the closure isn’t really closure because the present–past hauntings occur in both directions.

5. Primeval

Primeval
Primeval series 3 cast standing in front of an anomaly: Abby Maitland (Hannah Spearitt), Connor Temple (Andrew Lee-Potts), Sarah Page (Laila Rouass), Danny Quinn (Jason Flemyng), and Captain Becker (Ben Mansfield) [4]

[5.1] Another British program of interest is ITV’s uneven, CGI-heavy action-adventure show Primeval, which just finished showing series 3 and then was abruptly canceled, despite a nail-biting cliffhanger. (The TV show has been optioned as a full-length film feature, and an American version of the TV show may or may not be in the works.) I find the show interesting for its time-travel element: the show assumes the existence of temporary rifts in the space-time continuum, and creatures from the eras like the Cretaceous or Jurassic, plus genetically engineered creatures from the future!, accidentally wander through these rifts into our present time and wreak havoc. Series 3 moved in an interesting direction with the inclusion of an archaeologist/historian on the team and the acknowledgment of the existence of these rifts in the past as well as the present. Despite the interesting premise, the characters spend most of their time with weaponry, attempting to take down various rapacious dinosaurs while keeping the whole thing from the public.

[5.2] The program’s soft reboots intrigue me. Series 2 rebooted from series 1 by putting Nick Cutter (played by Douglas Henshall) in a slightly different alternate reality. Not only is his world different, with a sudden expansion of the team’s offices, power, and tactical support, but the woman he has just realized he loves, Claudia Brown, is now named Jenny Lewis, and she has no memory of him (both characters are played by Lucy Brown). He has to play along to fit in. The reboot meant a character change, if not a cast change—the cast change happens in series 3.

[5.3] The best thing about the reboot is the character’s memory of it. It’s not like a Dallas reboot, for example, when everything was revealed to be a dream, or a Star Trek–type reboot, where life-changing events can be unwritten because it was a holofantasy, or because alien technology removes the characters’ memories. What are the repercussions of suddenly moving into a new reality? And what does this say about the nature of world? Unfortunately the show doesn’t deal with these intriguing questions in any real depth, but I have respect for the attempts to present the possibility in terms of the show’s established logic. Not only do we have different times, both past and future, but we have different worlds, as well as a rogue character attempting to change the past.

6. Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Sarah Jane Adventures

[6.1] Although in my remarks I mentioned Doctor Who and its two spinoffs, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures, as shows that should be on everybody’s must-watch list, I didn’t talk about them at length because none of them is currently airing regular series eps. DW and TW are both showing five specials this year, and although a season 3 for SJA is planned, as far as I can tell, it won’t air until 2010.

[6.2] These three texts form an interesting metatext: the Doctor unites all these shows, even though he doesn’t appear in TW and SJA. The shows share the same universe and presumably the same canon, and events that occur in one series may reverberate into another. These shows are particularly successful at creating stand-alone worlds of their own, so it’s not necessary, for example, to see SJA to understand Sarah Jane’s presence in DW 4.13 “Journey’s End.” But if you’ve seen SJA, the DW ep has a particular piquancy. DW was my first fandom, and I’m delighted that it takes three shows, with three very different sensibilities, to explore the DW universe’s rich metatext.

7. Image credits

1. Demons image from the show’s Web site: http://www.itv.com/drama/cult/demons/.

2. Merlin image from the show’s Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/merlin/.

3. Ashes to Ashes image from the show’s Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ashestoashes/.

4. Primeval image from TV.com: http://www.tv.com/primeval/show/68346/viewer.html?ii=1&grti=101&gri=68346&flag=1

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