Monday, February 23, 2009

The Kill Switch

This is a topic I could have added to the Introduction of our second book, devoted to SF shows from 1990-2004, but that was already a long essay. And so it is just as well that it is used here, as a blog entry.

One of the facts of life in any television series, whether it be a comedy or drama series, is that necessary evil: Cancellation. There are actually three kinds of cancellation and all of them have been rendered upon our SF genre shows.

The first type is cancellation on the producer’s terms. This is the most coveted by creative types and is a prize when captured. On just about every season J. Michael Straczynski struggled with making sure that his space epic Babylon 5 lived on for the planned five years. He very nearly lost the show at the end of its fourth season, necessitating that the series’ final episode was filmed ... just in case. But a fifth season reprieve allowed them to put that story “on the shelf” for a year. Interestingly, JMS is quite probably the only TV series creator to envision a five-year epic by design. He’s the only one who mapped out, beforehand, a conclusion on paper.

In a similar vein, Battlestar Galactica, executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s remake of Glen A. Larson’s one-season wonder from the 1970s, sent themselves into oblivion in four compact seasons. Perhaps learning lessons from other shows, executive producers and writers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, of ABC’s intricately engrossing puzzle Lost also arranged for a limited set of episodes to properly map out the storytelling without padding the show. In this case, an ending was needed to be set so that the pieces could be laid down for an endgame.

The second type of being hit is being cancelled by the network, who don’t support the show. Ignobly, networks can be fierce with their programming, dropping shows after airing just a handful of episodes, as it happened to Century City, Harsh Realm, Mercy Point, Strange World, Sleepwalkers and Timecop. Despite initial efforts NBC “tried out” seaQuest for three seasons, before pulling the plug. Inexplicably, Fox TV aired Firefly’s initial 2-hour pilot film as...its last episode before ending the series. Too often we’ve watched how networks shabbily treat their expensive investments. Even after a show is cancelled, with leftover unaired episodes remaining on the shelf, a network will occasionally “burn off” the episodes at a later time in an effort to recoup some expenses as was done by UPN with Mercy Point (the last four episodes) and by Showtime with Odyssey 5 who aired the last six remaining episodes as two-hour movies over a three week period...25 months later! Straczynski’s Jeremiah, which ran for two seasons experienced a similar phenomenon. It’s final eight episodes were “burned off” eight months after the series’ initial run. The worst circumstance is when the network doesn’t even want the show at all and tries to sabotage the show’s life, as TNT had done with the Babylon 5 spinoff Crusade.
The third type of cancellation is the most typical: A verdict rendered by the audience. It’s when the ratings are so low the network realizes there is no audience for a program and kills it.

A show can also be stopped for reasons other than the above. Code Name: Eternity was a series that filmed 26 episodes before being sold to the United States broadcasting market and the production apparatus was already dissolved. With Odyssey 5 and Jeremiah, the network sat on the shows for a long time, preventing further adventures.

Sometimes a show can run longer than anyone has expected (Stargate SG-1) or frustratingly shorter than expected (Crusade and Firefly).

Watching SFTV series is great fun but always remember there’s an ending down the road. The only question is who is going to make that call and how will that call affect the life and death of the series?

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