A Happy New Year of Science Fiction, or 2010 Repackaged?

January is a time of promised fresh beginnings and new resolutions, for television executives and series creators as well as the rest of us. SF fans can only hope programmers’ and promoters’ resolutions go something like this: “I resolve to support and promote highly anticipated TV series long enough for them to gather a fan base, to make sure my episodes and miniseries live up to all the hype generated by Comic-Con panels, and to value the existing fan base just as much as any new audiences I want to conquer.“ Whether you’re one of those greenlighting a series, thinking up new characters and apocalyptic experiences in which to embroil them, or taking a “snow day” to catch a series’ premiere or marathon, January ushers in a hopeful new year of original as well as re-imagined SF projects.

Before viewers resolve to watch or avoid new SF offerings, they might want to look carefully at the packaging. Among the shiny new series are also remakes and pilots being “re-gifted” to a new audience. Of course, some intriguing, unique characters deserve to keep coming back from the dead, but the industry also must initiate truly new ideas that, one day, will be worthy of being re-imagined for a future generation of SF fans.

Five series promised for a 2011 US debut on Syfy or Starz—Being Human, Alphas, Three Inches, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, and Torchwood: The New World—will be making SF headlines in January as they premiere, begin filming, or learn their scheduling fate. They also indicate the state of SF in a cable-friendly US market.

Made in the USA

Two highly anticipated SF series, Being Human and Torchwood, originated in the UK Whereas Torchwood retains its British heritage but gains global locations (especially in the US, home to BBC’s new production partner, Starz), Syfy borrowed Being Human’s vampire/werewolf/ghost-as-roommates premise but settled the roommates in a new country.

Syfy’s Being Human takes its title and concept from the original series, which has already wrapped a third season’s filming; however, the names and places were changed to protect, if not the innocent, the “Americanness” of the story. In the US, werewolf (aka “Wild Man” on the Syfy website’s description) Josh, “Lady Killer” vampire Aidan, and “Free Spirit” ghost Sally become roommates in Boston. The character descriptions fit the first-season descriptions of their UK counterparts: Josh and Aidan work in a hospital; Sally meets her new roommates when they move into the home she once shared with her fiancé.

The chemistry among the UK series’ cast helps smooth over bumps in the plot; in particular, the camaraderie between vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner) and werewolf George (Russell Tovey) makes these potentially monstrous characters much more lovable. If Josh (Sam Huntington), Aidan (Sam Witwer), and Sally (Meaghan Rath) can create the same us-versus-them solidarity and that winning combination of vulnerability and spunk, the US version will well be worth a look. Although I enjoy the UK cast tremendously and I’m biased toward Russell Tovey’s George as my all-time favorite werewolf, I’m especially looking forward to seeing Mark Pellegrino (formerly known to LOST fans as Jacob) as vampire ringleader Bishop (think Herrick from the UK series). He may be even more sinister than his British counterpart by conveying a lethal sexiness that equally attracts and repels viewers who know they shouldn’t like him but find him mesmerizing. Being Human premieres on Syfy on Monday, 17 January.

A series looking for a new beginning with several new cast members in a new locale is Torchwood, appropriately subtitled The New World. For a series reportedly planned for cable-network (Starz and BBC, respectively) broadcast in July, Torchwood has been busily keeping its name in the entertainment news for months. In December, John Barrowman’s many UK-based projects, from Glaswegian panto to BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special, reminded the actor’s fans that Captain Jack will soon be back. The impending relocation of Eve Myles (Torchwood’s Gwen Cooper) to the US was the subject of interviews in home country Wales. At fan convention Chicago TARDIS, Kai Owen (who plays Rhys Williams) enthusiastically looked forward to the start of filming, and tweets between Owen and Tom Price (PC Andy Davidson) alerted fans to the imminent start date. If Torchwood is looking for a fresh beginning, the scheduled first day of US filming is highly symbolic: 1/11/11.

Casting news in mid-December became almost a daily occurrence, first with a call for a one-night stand for Captain Jack; “Brad” was described as a D.C. bartender who shouldn’t be afraid of close-ups. Mekhi Phifer, formerly of ER, was cast as new main character Rex Matheson, and the surprise addition of Bill Pullman made formerly despicably-described convict Oswald Jones seem, if not cuddly and family friendly, at least a character of greater depth than the initial Starz bio indicated.

Even audiences who haven’t followed the UK-based series might be familiar with their characters or at least some highly publicized aspects of previous seasons’ story lines. In the closely knit (or Internetted) SF community, such high-profile series become common knowledge, and even audiences not so much attuned to SF likely have skimmed a YouTube video or entertainment headline featuring a Being Human or Torchwood actor or scene.

Torchwood seems to court controversy, and its transition from script to screen likely will be eagerly followed by fans and critics alike. However, Torchwood must balance teasing the audience from January to July with making the tease worth the wait. US and UK fans of the original Welsh-themed series need a reason to follow Captain Jack to LA, where a new, broader-based potential audience must be introduced to the good Captain and even the concept of “Torchwood”.

Being Human has a fan base not only in the UK but in the US, via BBC America, which will broadcast upcoming episodes of the British original. To distinguish itself, Syfy’s Being Human must build on the strengths of the original: an appealing cast, dark themes interspersed with self-deprecating humor, and audience empathy for basically good characters who, through no fault of their own, become social outcasts. Nevertheless, the move from Bristol to Boston requires more than name changes if Syfy’s series is going to have a ghost of a chance with viewers. Its plots have to diverge from its same-named competition on another cable channel and make Josh, Aidan, and Sally different from George, Mitchell, and Annie.

One More Time

Like Torchwood and Being Human, Battlestar Galactica, in its many guises and spinoffs, has a built-in fan base as well as a potentially large new audience looking for a reason to follow the franchise. Last year’s new series Caprica gained a faithful following who didn’t particularly care about Cylons but liked to see religion and politics mix it up as frequently as the members of the series’ founding families. Caprica lovers, however, never were as large an audience as that of the re-imagined BSG from which it spun. When Caprica was abruptly axed and its remaining five episodes scheduled for a marathon session on 4 January, the series’ fans were, to say the least, dismayed. Before Caprica was cold, yet another BSG-themed series (Blood and Chrome) was announced, presumably for broadcast in 2011. This prequel emphasizes William Adama’s first mission aboard Galactica during the tenth year of war with the Cylons. Furthermore, a 15 December Variety article noted that a film based on Syfy’s BSG is in development with the newly created Syfy Films, a joint venture between Universal Pictures and Syfy.

Apparently, if one BSG-themed project doesn’t garner enough audience attention and devotion, there’s another version just waiting to be launched. With Variety’s news indicating that the fan-favored BSG might be getting another chance at the big screen, will fans less than happy either with Caprica ’s story or its cancellation be willing to spend time with yet another TV prequel? Stay tuned. More undoubtedly will be revealed in January.

Original Series

Although “superheroes” is hardly an original concept, variations on this theme continue to be popular. As a result, Syfy finds itself with two pilots about basically the same idea. Alphas and Three Inches both cover the SF premise of ordinary people who find themselves with superpowers (as does NBC’s No Ordinary Family, which debuted last fall and is steadily gaining viewers). Whereas Alphas seems to Syfy to be better suited for a dramatic hour-long format, as of mid-December, Three Inches apparently is about an inch and a half too long. To differentiate the two series, Syfy announced it was considering changing Three Inches’ team-based story to one emphasizing a single character, and episode length might be shortened to a half hour.

Whether both heroes-themed series ultimately make it to Syfy’s schedule, January seems to be a key month in determining when the pilot episodes will be shown and to what end—as merely a burn-off of a good pilot or the start of a promising program.

The Promise of January

With the TV industry now developing projects for later broadcast in 2011, January is an auspicious time for planning, scheduling, and filming. The fate of original series, such as Alphas and Three Inches, soon must be decided while fans of the projects themselves or the actors associated with them are still interested in the outcome and before these 2010 pilots become tainted from being kept on the shelf too long.

SF series looking for new life in 2011 must conquer conflicting challenges. As BSG’s executive producer David Eick explained about his new prequel, “The goal with ‘Blood & Chrome’ is to appeal to our fan base, of course, but it’s primarily to reach out to new fans who do not have, and will not require, any allegiance to either previous show.” Producers and creators of the US version of Being Human and US-UK production Torchwood: The New World likely share this sentiment. These series already have a mythology on which to base prequels, sequels, spinoffs, or remakes. They have fans who know and love the original but may be enticed to view further adventures and to meet new characters. These series have to tell new stories, but they can’t stray too far from the expected path or they risk alienating a loyal core of the fan base. BSG, Torchwood, and Syfy’s Being Human have to allow samplers a clear entry point while retaining returning viewers’ interest.

Science fiction is at a turning point. Although mainstream SF series, which are often serialized episodes with great, if sometimes unwieldy mythologies, come and go from US broadcast networks, cable offers SF more programming possibilities. Cable can import another nation’s original programs (e.g., BBC America programming) or permit experiments with length (e.g., Three Inches as a half-hour drama) and number of episodes (e.g., Torchwood’s “season”al range from 13 to 5 to 10). It can try to twist one premise into multiple audience-attractive shapes or create something truly original.

What will SF on TV become in 2011—something shiny and exciting or last year’s leftovers repackaged for quick sale? Will the stories and characters intrigue viewers enough to invest their time, and will that investment be rewarded with a completely-told story or death by plotus interruptus? Will 2011 birth an innovative, provocative new SF series or take previously mythologized series in exciting new directions? As we raise a toast to 2011, let’s hope SF has something to celebrate.