(UPDATE: contains mild spoilers for Battlestar Galactica Series Three. Also, casual reference to Indian bansuri flutes)
ANOTHER UPDATE: James Moran's comments added at the bottom of this post.
I've been trying to work out why I've been left so cold by most of the genre stuff on british telly at the moment (and by 'genre' I mean specifically SF/fantasy, which is how a lot of people in television refer to it, which shows how much they know). It's a truism to point out that it's simply not as good as most of the American stuff, but it's harder to work out exactly why that is.
A large part of the problem, I suspect, is that over here, smart geeks are rarely in control of the production process. In the States, writers work their way up the ladder from humble staff writer, to head writer, to all those weird job titles that are basically avoiding saying 'still a writer but now with a lot more money' ('story editor' and 'co-executive producer' being just two examples - and for more on the Byzantine ins and outs of American television production, you could do worse than subscribe to Rob Long's excellent Martini Shot Podcast).
In this country there's often been an invisible dividing line between writers and producers: partly because of the corporate set-up of the large broadcasters, and partly because... culturally, that's just the way things have been. And I just don't think people with innately geeky tendencies, the kind of obsessiveness that leads them to spend years at a time tracking every last issue of an obscure indie comic book, or finding weird Scandinavian electro bands have the required skillset that allows them to rise high in the world of production, a career that requires the finely honed social skills of a blindfolded Borgia at a 'bring your own dagger' party. And yet in the States, writer/producers are the norm. Once they've proved themselves by bringing in flipping great wodges of cash, these pale feeble nerdlynerds are actually allowed to step back from the typing and start making decisions about shows, and have a 'vision', and bring in other typists to make that vision come true without having to do any of the dull writing business themselves. AKA 'The Writer's Dream'.
Amusingly, many a British television producer (who only got into television in the first place because publishing is too poorly-paid, and the career in the City didn't work out) has gone over to the States to acclaim and backslapping, only for the Americans to suddenly realise said producer is basically just a suit, with no writing experience at all. Brit Producer is then cold-shouldered, and in extreme cases, made to sit next to Eric Idle at the canteen.
(At some point, of course, I'm going to have to write a blog post about the producers I know, and have worked with, who are charming, erudite, know their onions and a few other vegetables aside, and are frankly a little bit gorgeous. Because they do exist, and to pretend all producers are engaged in some conspiracy of mediocracy is a) untrue, and b) letting way too many lazy writers, myself included, off the hook. But that will have to wait for another time).
However, as the more astute reader will already have realised, writer/producers are becoming increasingly common over here. Russell T. Davies began as a writer, then got sufficient clout to work on whichever show he wanted. Except everyone in power at the BBC at the time thought Doctor Who was a load of old nonsense, and doomed, so told him 'no'. Until he refused to consider doing anything else for them at all, ever, at which point they gave up and let him have his way, as head writer, and producer for the show. Stephen Moffat, of course, is taking over in the same capacity. And since New Who and Life On Mars both got the double, with astonishing ratings and outstanding reviews, genre telly has become very much in. Hurrah.
So why is so much of it just rubbish? Well, even with new writer/producers at some of the helms, most of these shows are being aimed at Who's audience, which means teatime family viewing. Which means slick visuals, diddly-diddly-whee background music to tell you what emotion you should be feeling at any given time, subject matter that's never too controversial and a general sense that if said show looks reasonably close to a DVD spin-off of a Hollywood movie, the job's a good 'un. And if you think I'm exaggerating, I've worked on one UK show with fantasy elements, where I have been specifically told to "avoid nuance and detail', and that supporting characters absolutely had to be two-dimensional, because that's how fantasy works.
Added to which, what a lot of Brit writer/producers often don't have is the knowledge of the genre possessed by the writers/producers of really good American stuff, like Buffy, or Battlestar Galactica, or Dead Like Me, coupled with the ruthless application of one astonishing fact: zombies, demons, vampires, plagues, spaceships, robots and goblins are not inherently interesting.
It's mind-blowing stuff isn't it? Took me ages to get the concept into my head, but eventually, somewhere around Resident Evil Three, it stuck. Zombies are not enough. What the better American shows did was to use genre as a thumping great metaphor engine. Every demon on Buffy, every supernatural occurrence, everything that happened in Sunnydale because of the Hellmouth, they all served as metaphors about growing up as an American teenager in the closing years of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first: Xander being possessed by a hyena demon that led him to temporarily prey on the weak, those bitchy high school girls that really would rip your throat out given half the chance - all metaphors for late 20th/early 21st C. adolescence brought to life. And because Joss Whedon knows genre like other people breathe air, he was able to twist all the cliches we'd seen before: right at the start the trembling female student who gets talked into sneaking onto school property for illicit afterschool romance by the bad boy turns out to be the vampiric aggressor. Buffy herself is of course a subversion of the cliché of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie." The working title for Buffy was, at one point, 'Rhonda the Immortal Waitress', a title I just can't see any British television producer going for in a million years.
Battlestar Galactica, of course, is a whole series of metaphors, one huge allegory that doesn't just ask the big questions like 'what are laws for', 'what is mercy' 'why should civilian goverment retain power in a time of war' and 'am I who I think I am, really?', but also tries to make America, and by extension the West take a really hard look at itself. For me, the finest moment in Battlestar Galactica wasn't the gruelling Iraq parallel of Cyclon-occupied Caprica 2, or the two-part space battle that ended up being seen almost entirely from the point of view of one pilot floating in space after ejecting from his spaceship and slowly running out of air, but the moment on the soundtrack when the Galactica's sister ship, the Pegasus, began to reveal itself as an even darker version of the central vessel, with its captain unafraid to use murder and unthinkable torture in the name of a just war. Galactica's soundtrack theme, arranged by the incredibly talented Bear McCreary, has always had a distinctly Eastern influence: Indian bansuri flute, Armenian woodwind, Chinese violins, Turkish lute, Japanese taiko drums to name but a few. But the theme for the Pegasus? A steel slide guitar. The baddies' theme was the most archetypally American, cowboyish instrument you could possibly imagine. Just one tiny element in a fantastic couple of episodes, but one where an already brave show truly showed its mettle.
So, bearing this in mind, what are the current crop of Brit SF shows actually about? Demons, Merlin, Primeval, Survivors, Spooks Code 9, bloody Bonekickers... where are the metaphors? Where are the big questions? What are they trying to say? Because I'm buggered if I know. This doesn't make them bad shows, of course (although some of them are, obviously), but it makes them rather disappointing ones speaking as a viewer, and frustrating ones from the point of view of a writer, as I've spent years trying to get to the point I can pitch for my own genre show, only for the schedules to be so clotted with monsters and CGI shiny objects it's become incredibly hard to come up with an idea that doesn't on first glance sound like three other shows either on the screen now, or already in development.
So I'm working on pitches for a new cop show instead. Tragically, my first attempt, 'PC Aragorn Investigates' has received the thumbs-down.
JAMES 'Fires of Pompeii' MORAN comments (and he's probably writing for more British genre shows than anyone else right now, so he knows his stuff):
"So why is so much of it just rubbish?
"I'll tell you for why, sir. The reason is the same as it ever was: people who don't understand genre are making some of the new genre shows. Some of them are jumping on the bandwagon, without knowing or even *liking* genre. Which staggers me.
Here's how it goes down: RTD, who thoroughly understands and loves genre, makes a genre show (DW). Genre show is a huge success. Everyone else thinks, ah, genre is the thing now, they make money, let's make genre shows. They then hire writers/producers/directors who have a track record to make those shows.
The trouble is, they hire people with a track record on *non-genre* shows. Said people haven't seen much genre, and have decided that it is silly and rubbish. *Their* genre show is going to be much better, deeper, more relevant, they say. But they have never seen an episode of Buffy, or The Twilight Zone, or The Prisoner, etc etc. So they come up with stuff that's been done a million times before, or that's just not interesting.
Rinse and repeat. Replace "show" with "movie", and you get the same result. This has been a blight on horror movies for a few years now - "ooh, horror makes money, I know, I'll do a horror movie, it'll be easy, I've seen one or two, and I'll make loads of money, besides, horror is stupid, it's just gore and tits, I can write it in five minutes, job done." No, it's not easy, unless you want to make a shit movie, then mission accomplished. I have been in more than one meeting where the person is being patronising about genre, while attempting to get his genre-based project off the ground. Obviously it's not the case for all shows, most producers are lovely and brilliant, etc etc, but this is how it happens a lot of the time, and why genre was a dirty word on TV for many, many years.
However. It will get better. More people who understand genre are being trusted to create it. It's not difficult, the answer has been staring everyone in the face for years. Successful genre shows are created by people who know and love genre. It's fairly simple, and they'll catch up soon enough."
Thanks James, and yeah, I ended up concentrating on the bad in this post, whereas there is some cracking stuff out there as well - every third episode of Who, and Charlie Brooker's Dead Set are solid proof, I think, that people who know their genres are really capable of turning out the goods. There are also a lot of execs who've been keeping their geeky lights under a geeky bushel for too long, and might finally get a chance to turn out the sort of television they want to see, rather than they're told people want to watch, which could only be a good thing.