A Golden Age For Fantasy And Science Fiction On Television?

Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who. Four shows which often fall in the “great” category and are getting both much love from critics, awards, and are doing very well in the ratings. Why? I don’t know all the reasons, but without a doubt one of the prime reasons is our old friend the computer. With 3D software and digital imaging trickery getting ever more sophisticated, faster, easier, and most of all cheaper, the massive costs that made some of these stories impossible to tell because the budgets would have been over the moon have come down to a level where the BBC and the Sci-Fi channel can afford to produce them and not have to pull them after only a few episodes because massive costs aren’t justifying the audience levels they are seeing. It’s finally getting cheap enough to just tell the story you want to tell, even if it’s fanciful or strange, even if it requires special effects to tell it, as long as it’s a good story.
Another element seems to be the stories themselves. Three of these are driven by large ensemble casts and they are trying to tell compelling ongoing stories which are driven by character development and the revelation of large ongoing mysteries; why are they here on this island and what is the island, how will these heroes get together and what challenges will they face, or will the remains of humanity ever escape the Cylons and who among them are really not human at all. Yes, special effects have gotten cheaper and they can now use them when they want them, but they don’t drive a show that anybody cares about, characters and story do that. These shows understand what to focus on.
And lastly, the removal of barriers to entry. When the X-Files came on, if you wanted to join the party late, you had to do pretty much exactly that. You started watching with the latest episodes. If you were really lucky you knew a friend who had taped some of them. These days, if you miss a single episode of a show like Heroes, so what? You buy it for a couple of bucks from iTunes or you download it somewhere. With shows like Lost or Galactica you can buy, borrow, or rent DVD releases of previous seasons you’ve missed to catch up in a hurry. So nobody gets left out when something turns out to be really great but you didn’t start watching from day one. We are a perfect example of that because we didn’t start watching Lost until six or seven episodes into the first season but we were able to catch up when everybody who was watching insisted we start.
Consider this my opportunity to do the same with you. Heroes is fantastic. It is my new favorite show. Battlestar Galactica has proven to be consistently deep, dark, and wonderful. The new episodes of Doctor Who are a lot prettier than the older ones but more than that they’re doing a great job of focusing on the stories and making them still feel like they should. Lost has two excellent seasons behind it and the third one is cracking along nicely. Some people feel a kind of “mystery fatigue” set in after a while with shows like this if they feel like it’s being made up along the way but Lost has done a much better job of revealing things regularly (unlike say Twin Peaks) and setting up new mysteries to keep you interested. It doesn’t feel as tightly plotted as Babylon 5 was, but the dialog doesn’t make you cringe like Babylon 5 did either. Go watch these shows. Watch them from the beginning and I’ll bet that at least a couple will really hook you in and make you think like I do, that as far as TV is concerned, this might be the best time ever.

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