I don’t watch all that much television. And I watch even less good television (ask anyone I know). Many shows that I do like tend to not be shows that other, more mainstream, audiences like, and thus thanks to the lovely ratings system they have over in the US, a high percentage of these shows get cancelled before their stories can be fully told.
And as a writer, I hate that. I absolutely hate not knowing how a story is to end.
Sure, I have a good imagination — I’d go so far as to say I have a great imagination — but I still don’t believe that that is a worthy substitute for having a narrative end the way the original creators envisaged it.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer got pseudo-cancelled at the end of Season 5 before it got picked up by another network, I was impressed by the gutsy ending to the whole thing. I was happy to have taken that journey with the characters and, while I could definitely have watched more, I was nevertheless sated by the story. At the end of Season 7 I was equally sated. It felt very much like I had grown up with these characters and had become attached to them, so when people died I was shocked or saddened — which is what a good story should do.
Equally, in Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, I find it very very difficult not to get emotional at many points across the 4 seasons, but especially in the final episode when Roslin and Adama say their goodbyes.
On Television’s Opportunities…
Television shows offer us a narrative opportunity few books can. I can finish a 600 page novel in 3-4 hours, but you can only get so attached to characters in the space of those 150,000 words or so. Television, on the other hand, offers 45 minutes every week for either 13 or 22 weeks (give or take) depending on which side of the Pond the programme is from. Give a show multiple seasons, and that number doubles, trebles, quadrouples…
A writer can produce a 600 page novel about characters you like every year, maybe faster if they’re particularly prolific. That’s 4 hours of getting into those characters’ heads, their thoughts, their feelings, their relationships, and the events that sweep them away.
But with television you get four times that and, if the programme has good writers and doesn’t cut corners in terms of budget et cetera the experience is just as fulfilling.
Which brings me to my point.
As the title suggests, I’ve just finished watching Farscape, a science fiction show that was on when I was at university and thus never watched (because I had no television there). I’ve seen bits of the odd episode over the years but never really had the chance to investigate it properly. That changed last week, when I finally sat down and started watching.
And as this blog suggests, I simply couldn’t stop watching. It has been an awfully long time since I was able to engage with a television series to this degree. I honestly cannot think of an episode I did not enjoy, which is sadly something I cannot say for Buffy (hello most of Season 4!)
I must confess that before I started watching, I checked to find out if the series ended properly or if it was cancelled before its time. I was shocked when I learned season 4 ended with a cliffhanger and an unexpected cancellation, but relieved when I learned there was a tele-movie to tie up many of the loose ends and offer proper closure.
After that final 2-parter, I write this blog with a mix of emotion and feel compelled to, somehow, put those thoughts and feelings into words. Which is hard. Really hard.
I don’t think I’ll ever write for a TV show, so the analogy won’t be exact, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I wish that I could write something like Farscape – something so driven by characters, action, humour, feelings; something that deliberates on what it means to be human, what it means to love someone, how we as a species would react to (literally) alien places and situations, how we all deal with loss.
Farscape seems to me to be very much the type of television show that, when you’re watching it, you really would like the show to last forever, to keep on going, expanding, exploring; but also a show about characters who you would like to see receive that quintessential happy ending we all strive for. I think it is that feeling that ensured I found it such compelling viewing, and I think that is definitely one of the advantages of watching a show after the fact.
Too many television shows never get the chance to reach their potential thanks to the ratings system. Firefly, Moonlight, Tru Calling, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles… all cancelled before they really got going. Sure we got Serenity to round out Firefly, and Moonlight had a bit of a tacked-on ending to satisfy the shippers, but most shows you never get to find out what the writers really intended to happen in the end.
At least with Farscape I knew I could wholeheartedly wrap myself in the story and become involved with the characters, because I knew they would have an ending to their tale: happy, sad or otherwise. The same cannot be said of many ongoing television shows, and I think that is a huge shame. Every year I read about shows being “on the bubble” — that constant tug of will they/won’t they be renewed. Are the ratings high enough? Are the networks making enough money from advertising?
I understand the financial aspects of it — the networks are out to make money, after all. But as a viewer, there is nothing more disheartening than allowing yourself to become embroiled in the lives and relationships of characters and then having that rug pulled from beneath your feet. And I think that is why reality television shows are so popular. They’re cheap to produce, you don’t need a ton of writers and actors and props and makeup and special effects, and people will tune in and mindlessly watch simply because it’s what’s on.
Farscape was prohibitively expensive to produce. You can tell just by watching most of the episodes. The production values are huge.
But, more importantly, it was a show that tried to tell a story. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t watched another show ever with so many multi-part episodes. It must have been agonising for fans of the show who watched it week-to-week when that “TO BE CONTINUED…” flashed up at the end of an episode and then, in a move I don’t think I’ve seen in any other show, for it to happen at the end of a second episode in a row. Three-parters?!
And yet its those huge story arcs, the impressive continuity between episodes, the building up of a mythology that has me so enthralled with the show. So much TV is episodic these days, so that every episode a new viewer can tune in an instantly get a grip on everything and every character. The only show I can think of that is in any way building up a mythology is Fringe, and even then it often has the monster-of-the-week episodes that Buffy and Smallville ran with for so long before they started working on larger story arcs.
Farscape ended in 2003 with a surprise cancellation and a cliffhanger ending that fans had to wait a whole 18 months to get any kind of resolution for. But what a resolution it was. Admittedly it wasn’t easy to fit what looked to be a whole season’s worth of wrapping things up into a 3 hour movie, and I suspect a big chunk of what was planned for the series had to be cut along the way, but there was closure — and a very adult, ambivalent closure at that.
Did I get the ending I wanted? Yes! But it wasn’t a sugar-sweet, saccharine ending, which made it all the more poignant.
As a human being, I need the certainty of closure in the stories I read, the shows I watch, the games I play. In real life, there is no closure for us; when we turn the final page of our lives, we don’t get to continue imagining what happens after our story ends — we either find out if there’s a sequel/epilogue, or we don’t. A particularly morbid thought, I admit, but one I often keep close when writing — I don’t want to leave my readers without that sense of closure. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and all stories must end — preferably when they have been fully told.
I’m glad Farscape was given that chance to finish telling much of its story. Individually the episodes were great, but looking back at the story as a whole, from a writer’s perspective, I can’t help but feel humbled by it.