Why does Science Fiction feel more satisfying in literature than in television series?
In a word: Closure.
[WARNING: Multiple spoilers ahead]
Take Max Headroom, about a reporter taking on the corrupt TV media, or Brimstone, its strict sinners-go-to-hell universe in contrast with the shades-of-gray moral dilemmas faced by the protagonist. Both shows were cancelled after a baker’s dozen of episodes, their potential unrealized. (Understandably, it’s hard to picture TV executives enjoying stories about their own backyard’s evil, or fundamentalists cheering the logical consequences of their narrow reading of scripture.)
For series that don’t reset the counters every week, though, boldly luring the audience toward a multi-episode story arc, the sudden halt feels worse.
The single seasons of Earth 2, Total Recall 2070 and FlashForward ended on cliffhangers, likewise the 24 episodes of Sense8. Half a season sufficed to deprive us of Crusade and Firefly, the latter’s fate worsened by a sequel film that betrayed multiple aspects of the series. And the arc of Defying Gravity’s 13 episodes was marred by a lack of closure about most of its wonderfully flawed characters.
An unrelated common thread is how these shows put an interesting spin on major SF themes. Earth 2: How can you colonize a second Earth when those who sent you screwed the extra-terrestrial natives in advance? Total Recall 2070: What does it mean to be the first truly sentient machine intelligence, an android hiding amongst humans? FlashForward: Suppose an inter-dimensional window shows you the near future, except future-you isn’t in it? Sense8: What happens when telepathy appears in a handful of people disseminated across the globe, who don’t know each other or that they represent a trans-human evolution? Crusade: How far would you go to save your planet from the devastation of an unstoppable alien plague? Firefly: How do you scrounge a life at the fringe of humanity’s newtopia civilization? (Okay, perhaps this theme is a stretch!) Defying Gravity: What if a future NASA had found compelling reasons to invest trillions in a manned, decade-long space-faring expedition?
Worst yet, the web often gives us a glimpse of what could’ve been, and oh the frustration!
Crusade would’ve completed its quest in the first two years, only to uncover the larger home-grown conspiracy. Firefly would’ve revealed the origin of ‘reavers,’ killed off two regular characters, and triggered another one’s superpowers—so the film did just that, but with a rushed storyline with nonsense compromises. And Defying Gravity would’ve continued its ‘grand tour’—dramatically justified, unlike the docudrama the series is based on—of solar system and character discovery.
As Nancy Kress writes in Beginnings, Middles & Ends, a story is a promise to make you feel and think. What matters to people who latched onto the series above is that the promise of thoughts and feelings developed over existing episodes was abruptly, cruelly withdrawn. Like departed friends, they now live only in memories or imagination.
(I can only conclude that my enthusiasm for some television series is the kiss of death, so beware if I mention I love a new one…)