Friday, July 14, 2017

Trek: Prestige vs Commodity

Over the last few months I've watched a lot of episodic, 24 eps/season-type shows. Shows like The Murdoch Mysteries, Haven, Flash, and Elementary. Lately it's been Elementary that's my video wallpaper while I do color work on my comics and eat lunch and try to defend my living room from the constant influx of red-gray dust we get in the high desert. A few days ago I told my husband, "I think I actually prefer Elementary to Sherlock. I realize it's not as artsy and fancy but its characters' stories play out over a long period of time, which means they actually have more time to develop, which means I care more about them. It also has a sense of humor and it feels like it exists in a real world that's really well thought out and..." I kept going on this Pros/Cons monologue for a while and then today I found an article from said husband in my inbox. It was published in Wired and it's about the importance of "commodity SciFi" vs "prestige SciFi." It's a fantastic read and, since I've been thinking about the topic anyway and because it also made me think a lot about Star Trek: Discovery and the direction it's taking... here I am.

Since you're reading this blog I'm assuming you're a SciFi/Fantasy fan and/or some type of geek who isn't totally unaware of the fact that traditionally geek-ish tropes like dragons, zombies, robots, and super heroes are all being wheeled out for the consumption of people who like to think of themselves as high-brow. These shows win Emmys and public approval for their artistic take on traditionally pulpy themes/set pieces. And I've always had a bit of a thorn in my paw about them. It annoyed me that people who would turn their nose up at hobbits and wizards were more than willing to eat a full helping of dragons as long as it came with plenty of HBO-style drama. And folks who would never sit down to enjoy Supergirl or Batman: The Animated Series or Buffy will always pony up for superheroes as long as the heroes in question come with all the cable grit and grime we have come to expect from them.

Of course, this isn't always the case. I have plenty of friends who watch and love both LOTR and GOT, both Data and... whoever's a robot in Westworld. I myself loved Black Sails on Showtime and Strike Back on Cinemax. And, of course, I think all kinds of TV should exist for all kinds of people. If gritty serialization is your thing I hope you're dancing a jig at all the options currently available to you...just please do your best not to look down your nose at the all the people who rush to their TVs once a week, 20-25 nights a year, for a slice of their pie (which is bigger, btw, even if not made from top shelf, hard to acquire ingredients.)

And this brings me (nearer) to my point (I promise.) Star Trek has always been commodity TV. It's always been low-budget, cut-the-corners, rush-to-production, re-use the sets, re-hire day-players you can trust because you're screwed otherwise, how are we possibly going to make 24 of these again kind of TV. And... that's kind of awesome.

Here's why:
Aside from Star Trek being genuinely charming in spite (or because of) its traditionally low-budget and low-prestige rating, it's always had to push against its constraints and it's always had to push for a lot of episodes. But that's how innovation happens.

The Wired article mentions, and I've mentioned several times on this blog over the years, that Star Trek, like any genre show, reuses stories and tropes over and over. There's the memory wipe episode, the alternate-timeline episode, the fight club episode, the dream inside a dream episode, the conspiracy episode, the mistaken identity episode... etc etc etc. But that's alright. Because within those familiar tropes and stories is the ability to reveal character in surprising ways. And, because we've spent thirty or fifty or seventy episodes with those characters, those revelations mean a lot to us, the fans. I smile when the tribbles tumble out of the storage compartment, I cry when Picard plays his flute, I rejoice when Nog is accepted into Starfleet, I laugh when The Doctor sings about ponfar, I grin when Hoshi declares herself Empress. And I do these things because me, the writers, the crew, and the actors have all been through 43/176/173/168/94 episodes together.

And here's the other thing; notice how high the numbers are in the previous sentence? With commodity TV, episodes are produced on a weekly basis for about half the year, thus the approximately 20-26 episodes. After a while, this builds up, by the time you get to season three or four or five you've already done... everything. Well, at least it seems like everything. I've seen in various places that I don't care to google at the moment that writers/comics/artists come up with their best stuff after the first several tries. And the best writers/artists/comics are the people who don't settle with the first ideas that come out. Of course, if you're pushing out 24 episodes you kind of have to take the first great idea that comes along but once you're 40 episodes in you've run dry. Or, at least you think you have. Having to reach into the back of your brain is how you get episodes like The Inner Light and Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy. It's how you get (what is probably the best hour of television ever) Once More With Feeling, the legendary Buffy musical episode that TV shows have been (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to reproduce ever since.

But the ideas alone aren't what make the episode magic. It's the combination of the idea (and the pen of the, by now, practiced writer) with the well known and loved (or hated) characters that produce the tears and the laughter and the grimaces and the way I still tear up if I even start talking about All Good Things.

Again, my point, (hey give me a break, I haven't been blogging regularly so I get a really long post to make up for it, right?) is that Star Trek: Discovery is consistently talked about as serialized with thirteen episodes. It's being billed like a prestige cable show when everything in Trek's history says it's a commodity show. Will they still have a groundhog day episode, a fight club episode, an alternate history episode? I don't know. Will they have an episode equivalent in feeling and magnitude to The Inner Light? I don't know, but that sort of depends on if they're around long enough to create the environment in which those episodes grow organically. No matter what, I'll be watching.


  1. Nice to see a level-headed analysis. Glad I follow your blog.

  2. This is something I've never thought about but you make some great points! I'm personally just a fan of good stories and characters I love, and it doesn't matter if I see them 24 times a season with a low budget or three times with a huge budget. It's nice to have a little variety, and I'm glad there are so many options. :)


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