Once upon a time, TV was fertile ground for genre shows. We had three incarnations of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Buffy, Angel. We had The X-Files drawing fannish and non-fan audiences alike. Not all the good shows made it, but there were always plenty of options to choose from. But over the last few years, SF TV has had it rough. There haven't been many shows that even managed to get a 13-episode order to air before being cancelled—even on the smaller networks, never mind on the Big Three. Quality television like Firefly and Odyssey 5 never got off the ground, and how many even saw such gems as Miracles, or Wonderfalls? There was a moment when it seemed that cable TV's greater creative independence and shorter seasons might provide some solace—see Battlestar Galactica—but somehow it's just not the same.
Then it all changed.
Then Lost aired.
Last season, every week, millions tuned in to ABC to watch the struggles of a ragtag group of 40-odd castaways, inexplicable survivors of a plane crash marooned on a mysterious desert island in the South Pacific. Why did they survive? Why are they there? Why do they seem to be linked? And, most importantly, are there monsters on the island? Lost has two main strengths. Firstly, the (slowly. Very, very slowly) unfolding mystery, and secondly, a formulaic but effective format for individual episodes: pick a character or two and tell their story using flashbacks, often providing tantalizing links to and clues about their present situation in the process. While only a few episodes are strongly science fictional (and even then, they draw equally from fantasy and horror), Lost has clear genre sensibilities, much like creator J. J. Abrams's other show, Alias. I wouldn't go so far as to call it slipstream for the TV generation (mostly because it is quite obviously SF in places), but like The X-Files it's clearly "normal" enough to hook people who don't like SF.
Fan response has been, at best, mixed. There's a substantial (online) fan community out there, dissecting every new episode for clues, theorizing like mad (fed by a production team capable of some very effective viral marketing campaigns to keep up the hype), but there's also a vocal minority who hate it, and its U.K. run is being increasingly met with ambivalence. Ultimately, though, love it or hate it, numbers will tell, and in the U.S. Lost is a ratings monster.
Now September 2005 rolls around, and Lost wins six Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. The Big Three seem convinced: if Lost can do it, so can they! It's time to bring SF back to the mainstream! The result: a trio of single-word-title shows, Threshold, Surface, and Invasion, each with a Lost-like minimalist credit sequence and a Lost-like suggestive name. All three pilot episodes also prominently feature The Sea (or, at the very least, large bodies of water), Catastrophic Events (often involving large pieces of man-made engineering, such as ships or submarines), and Mysterious Mysteries. It all sounds a little familiar—but if you look deeper, are the resemblances really anything more than superficial?
Threshold (CBS, Friday nights)
In a nutshell: Brannon "I broke Star Trek" Braga, in cooperation with David Goyer (best known to genre fans for his work on Blade and Batman Begins), brings us aliens. One fine evening, a shiny globe of CGI MacGuffin zoofs down from outer space and grinds to a halt near a U.S. Navy freighter, at which it flashes blinky mutagenic lights while folding in on itself in a pretty, fractal-Christmas-tree-ornament kind of way. Oh, and makes people crazy. All of which is the government's cue to bring in Molly Caffrey (Carla Gugino). She's a contingency analyst, paid to come up with protocols for dealing with worst-case scenarios, and this looks like a worst-case scenario. It looks like the aliens have landed.
Threshold is reminiscent of The X-Files, with more than a smattering of Odyssey 5 thrown in. It also draws on any number of horror/SF B-movies, possibly more so than from any other TV show. The story's a nice little collection of standard-issue SF tropes (and even some slasher movie moments). None of it feels new, little of it feels exciting, and it certainly isn't inspiring. We go from technobabble to Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer Action Movie dialogue, to possessed zombielike people chasing scantily clad women around homes, to chase and fight scenes in abandoned factories . . . the list just goes on. There's no flow, no rhythm, just a collection of (often surprisingly short) scenes joined up by liberal doses of action, fighting, and mystery, and topped off with inappropriate score music and even more inappropriate pop music. Too much happens, too fast; neither the story nor the characters are given room to breathe, and the result is very much paint-by-numbers sci-fi.
And the episodes are riddled with stilted, clunky dialogue. The technobabble alone is enough to make you reach for the off button. A few "favorite" moments include: images of the alien object causing our engineer to start babbling about "four-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space"; the interpretation of a fractal pattern as code for triple helix DNA (along with the awed statement that "who knows what triple helix DNA beings would look like"—because obviously, if they had double helix DNA they'd look just like us); and my absolute favorite, deciding that the flashing lights indicate an attempt to "bioform" the planet, to turn Us into Them. And all this within two or three hours of first contact with the evidence, most of it in one three-minute scene in the first quarter of the episode. That may work on Trek, where we're prone to ignore the technowankery, but it won't fly anywhere else. The really depressing thing? I'll bet you that most of it turns out to be more-or-less spot on.
It gets worse. The characters are big ol' walking cliches: we've got Commander Data (well, okay, Dr. Nigel Fenway, played by Brent Spiner) as the bitter, cynical medical doctor who's (apparently) also a (micro)biologist, a neurologist, an expert in internal medicine, and a pathologist in his spare time. We've got a brilliant yet easily frightened Rocket Scientist (Rob Benedict), who also specializes in signal analysis and random conjecture worthy of the worst kind of stereotyped SF Physicist. Lest we overlook him (he's a short person, see?), the Nerd Trinity is completed by Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), a linguist/mathematician who, though he speaks "over 200 dialects," seems to think quoting Shakespeare in pig latin is the epitome of wit, and spends his spare time hitting on anything with breasts, drinking, and gambling. Throw in Carla Gugino as the Strong Female Lead (with secrets and family mystery/Father Issues, of course), add a Big Hunk of Patriotic Muscle (Brian Van Holt) for protection, and we've got a cast. Tack on a Big Black NSA man (Charles S. Dutton) and his female boss (Diane Venora), and we've got ourselves something that looks awfully like it's trying too hard to be politically correct on top of being dreadfully cliched. Still, Lost took stereotypes and made them characters—but for that, you need decent dialogue. Threshold has a couple of good jokes, and the chemistry between some of the characters could turn out to be fun (the actors, frankly, are by far the best thing about this show), but oh, did I mention how most of the dialogue pained me? Most scenes fall into one of two categories, with writing to match: Exposition, with the characters as mouthpieces, or Character Building, complete with cringeworthy "insights".
It just doesn't work. It's mechanistic, unnatural writing. We know more about the aliens, about the characters, about everything than we ought to know after a single 90-minute episode, because everything is told, and nothing is shown. It's not the premise—that's okay—and the actors are mostly good. It's the framework the story is presented in, and that doesn't bode too well for the future. Which means, knowing my luck, that everyone will love it, and it'll run for eight seasons.
Surface (NBC, Monday nights)
There's something strange in the oceans. These are the signs: mysterious lights in the deep. Strange shooting stars falling into the Caribbean. A marine biologist exploring hot-vent ecosystems has a close encounter with a vast, glow-in-the-dark being that bursts up from a depth of over 8,000 feet. And a nuclear sub surfaces with a hull scarred with giant teeth-marks, fried electronics, and not a soul on board. At first glance Surface, by brothers Jonas and Josh Pate, is a standard monster-movie-turned-TV show, with shades of The Abyss, a dash of Jaws, and a number of scenes lifted straight from John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes.
There are four main plot lines. First up, a teenager in North Carolina (Carter Jenkins) finds a mysterious egg which he incubates in his parents' aquarium. Next, there's that divorcée single mother marine biologist (Lake Bell). Thirdly, there's a Louisiana spear fisherman (Jay R. Ferguson) who takes his brother out on his first deep-sea hunting trip. He watches as his brother is dragged to a watery grave after spearing one of the monsters. Finally, there's an eccentric evolutionary biologist (Rade Serbedzija, who must be a genius, because he writes mysterious equations on blackboards for no reason) who seems to at least have a vague notion of what exactly is going on, and has got the Military to back him up (and shut down anyone, like our marine biologist friend, who gets too close to the truth).
Plot-wise, this still has a whole lot less going on than Threshold. In fact, it's barely got anything going on. It's little more than an introduction to the characters, a setting of the stage, an introduction to the mystery. It has a few little subplots, one per character, each with its own little introduction, build up, climax, and resolution. But really, it's all about beginnings. And while it's fairly successful at tickling the viewer's curiosity, the overall arc is predictable. After the first "sea monster" sighting, we know full well that each of the subsequent characters is heading towards their own encounter with one of them. All that remains to be seen is how, and when.
And yet, it's still a far better piece of TV than the Threshold pilot. Following the characters and seeing their reactions to their encounters makes them live, and the few bits of expository dialogue are handled quite deftly. We don't know much more by the end of the episode than we did at the beginning: it's the "leave them wanting more" approach so successfully employed by Lost (although that's about the extent of the similarities). I'm fairly curious to see where this one will go.
Invasion (ABC, after Lost)
Hurricane Eve is approaching Florida (oh, how ironically topical). A weather plane, tracking Eve's progress and trying to take readings, flies into the eye of the storm. In response, mysterious lights fly out of the ocean and destroy the plane. Cue credits. Well, cue the word "Invasion" popping onto the screen for about 5 seconds, anyway.
So, we've got aliens/weird deep-sea things. Sounds familiar. Sounds kind of like Surface, actually, only with fewer leviathans. But Invasion comes from the pen of Shaun "Hardy Boys" Cassidy (who also had a hand in American Gothic), and it has a far more personal focus than either Surface or Threshold. The protagonists are drawn from two families, joined by a previous marriage. There's a park ranger, a sheriff (who, as you might expect from the guy who made American Gothic, probably isn't quite what he appears), a doctor, a reporter. Add a few kids, an uncle who believes in aliens, and we've got the main cast covered.
While the hurricane rages, one of the women (Kari Matchett; the doctor, married to the sheriff) is lost in the storm, and found hundreds of meters from her car, naked, unmarked, not breathing, but after some brief CPR, just fine. She's taken to the hospital, and is back on her feet in no time, but no longer quite seems to be who she was. She's still herself, but somehow different. Confused.
By the end of the episode, the dominant vibe is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with hints of Dark Skies, but Cassidy assures us this isn't the case . . . more or less. Let's just say that, just like Abrams's famous assurance that Lost "doesn't have dinosaurs" helped me keep giving that show a chance, Cassidy's promise gives me a little more confidence in this one. And that it has a less all-encompassing, world-changing feel than either Threshold or Surface is another point in its favour. The human dimension is of key importance here, and I like my shows that way. Invasion's strength lies in characterization, not plot, although the pilot opens up a good number of avenues for further story lines. The one potential problem I see is how the story can be sustained for more than a season or so; in some ways, this feels almost more like part one of a miniseries than like a full series. We'll have to wait and see what the show's producers have in store for us.
The New Kids on the Block
So, what do these three have in common? For one thing, mysterious beings. In two out of the three, there seems to be some element of mind control (or even full body control); in a different pair, we've got government cover-ups. And far more than Lost, they're all waving Big SF Pride flags in the Big SF Pride Parade, no matter what certain actors claim.
One other thing all three pilots unfortunately share is that they're not terribly compelling episodes. Lost, for all its faults, had a strong pilot. Dramatic, beautifully shot, with minimalist dialogue and strong performances all around; it captured the feel of the crash perfectly, the disorientation, the panic, the fear, and added just enough mystery to let us know this wasn't just Survivor: the Scripted Series.
These three? Not quite so much. Threshold is a particular offender, trying to cram the majority of a B-movie plot into a 90-minute slot, and doing a bad job of it. The characters are utterly predictable stereotypes that spew trite banalities in lieu of characterization, and the story's not interesting enough to work without them. Invasion and Surface both take the opposite approach: lots of decent to good character work, not much plot. Their stories are crafted to let us get to know the characters, and show us small glimpses of the mystery to come. Invasion keeps things more intimate, more personal. Surface is a little more obvious; once we see the deep-sea monster the first time, we kind of guess how things are going to go. It's not a fatal flaw, but it does take some of the wind out of Surface's sails (although giant deep-sea creatures? Always cool). But both shows have characters real enough to pull me into their world, and ultimately, I think that's the key: people will turn in to see what happens next to characters they care about. Once they're in, of course, then the pressure's on to provide enough story to keep people excited about watching . . . but that's for the future.
The Lost Generation?
Is this really the Lost generation? These shows may have been commissioned as a result of the island saga, but the similarities are mostly superficial. And none of them have the immediate appeal that Lost did. Surface may come close, but Invasion feels too much like a Pod People film, and Threshold has the misfortune to closely resemble the product of a liaison between The X-Files and a Michael Bay SF blockbuster while the former was popping every teratogenic pill known to man.
I'll be giving all of these shows a fair chance—meaning at least five or six episodes—since all a pilot does is offer a brief glimpse of a show's world, but for now my votes go to Surface and Invasion. Only time will tell if any of these shows will become the next Lost; but my guess is that none of them will make it to a second season, and that Lost will remain the next Lost for a while yet.
Mattia Valente is a dreamer, med student, and guitar builder, and makes a mean pizza. He speaks five languages, has two nationalities, and thoroughly enjoys quality speculative fiction on screen and in print. He sometimes likes to talk about it, too.