Note to ENGL 8900 readers – I posted this shortly after my weekly 8900 submission, which can be found here.
NBC’s Revolution pilot and second episode have aired, and have left me with something of an axe to grind with television science fiction. Spoilers may await you below, so be warned.
A short synopsis: sometime in our near future, an unnamed catastrophe strikes the entire planet, rendering all electronics non-functional. Televisions fizzle to eternal darkness, cellphones and computers wink out, cars coast to a stop on highways, planes fall from the sky, and cats and dogs are free to marry at last. Fifteen years later, survivors live in the bombed out remnants of the Chicago area, reduced to pre-tech (and seemingly, pre-industrial) means of providing for themselves. At least one survivor, as is indicated in a pre-disaster vignette, may know the cause of and perhaps information crucial to reversing the blackout. When he’s killed in a militia’s attempt to kidnap him for this information, his daughter and two other plucky villagers (a doctor and an ex-Google engineer) join her quest to fulfill her father’s dying wish that she locate her uncle to help rescue the brother that was taken instead during the botched abduction.
Aside from being uncomfortably close in concept to existing novels (SM Stirling’s Dies the Fire, for one), Revolution signals that producers still aren’t learning any lessons from mainstream science fiction juggernauts like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I make it a general policy to give new shows at least two or three episodes before I abandon them, but I’m not finding a lot to work with here. The people over in the TVTropes forum have been having a ball with this since its trailer appeared months ago, but my irritation with this show has to do with more with the substantive part of any drama, not just science fiction.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was known to ask any writer pitching an episode to explain what the story was about. For Roddenberry, and I think for any story that will stand up to critical viewing or reading, there has to be a deeper storyline than just surface deep. Think about how some of our greatest science fiction films stack up against that: Terminator 2 (fate, the human condition, compassion), The Matrix (destiny, the mind as a prison, the nature of reality), The Empire Strikes Back (legacy, the sins of the father, self-discovery), Space 2001 (self-awareness, our place in the universe, our impact on others), Planet of the Apes (the seventh generation, slavery, man as steward of the Earth) The Wrath of Khan (aging, relevance, loss, self-assessment). Of course there are many more films that never reached real blockbuster status that still hold up to the same standard, but my point is that we do stumble upon the occasional story that, despite a science fiction facade, manages to deliver a real story to the masses and win popular acclaim at the same time. Why can’t this apply to television shows more often?
What we have in Revolution is what we see again and again in network science fiction offering. Scrimping on acting talent; shoddy writing that fails to see the difference between genuine mystery/intrigue and chaotic script twists; and failing to plan beyond the hook of the story (something I fully admit I fell for, as skeptical as I was). Like with ABC’s V remake, NBC is acting like an ethically-deficient used car dealership, and appears to have slapped another coat of shiny paint on the same rickety, mechanically unsound clunker that will break down within five minutes of driving off the used car lot.
I love apocalyptic fiction, but what I love is nowhere to be found here. In compelling fiction, the story is about characters. In compelling apocalyptic fiction, the characters are really all you have to work with because the size of the world has necessarily shrunk, and characters necessarily have immense impact on each other – good and bad. The genre reduces humans to their basest motivations and puts them in fascinating conflicts between their cultured selves from a lost world and their primal selves in a new world. Yet I know so little beyond the surface depth of these characters because they are all clichés: a guilt-ridden, angry teenager with something to prove; an enigmatic outlaw who has been a loner so long that depending on others is anathema; a megalomaniacal villain who thinks he’s the good guy; and a violent and ruthless henchman (this last one is a true disappointment for Giancarlo Esposito, coming off his success as a fantastically deep and nuanced villain in AMC’s Breaking Bad). These characters are still their archetypes two episodes in.
Combine this with some standard failings of mediocre science fiction shows, such as acting that ranges from bland to forced, exposition that’s incongruous with the fictional world it comes from (such as forcing the common back story of a family member’s death into the dialogue between a father and daughter – they should both know and wouldn’t need to speak so explicitly), and situational clichés aplenty. And I’m no physicist, yet I’m pretty sure that while a plane faced with sudden power loss/engine failure would of course crash, it would happen in a glide that turns into a nosedive. It would not spin downward like a winged bird.
I’ll watch the third episode of Revolution tomorrow, giving it one more chance to show a glimmer of potential because this is a personal rule of mine with new shows. I want it to be better because I want science fiction on TV to be better, but also because I know this show’s failure will be more “proof” to producers that science fiction is too risky a genre for TV. Surprise, surprise.