What’s the best SF television show to encourage someone in the cultural mainstream to become a genre fan? What show has the magic combination of character development, interesting plot line(s), and, most importantly, easy accessibility (you might argue that sensawunda is another key element, but I’d count that as a sub-branch of plot – and an optional one) in sufficiently compelling quantities that make it the perfect gateway show to entice a person into becoming an SF fan?
Certainly, as geeks, we all have our favourites that we would like mainstreamers to adopt because of character and plot. But accessibility is the crucial factor here for a gateway experience – if your show has too many SF tropes that are unfamiliar to mainstreamers or ones that are too frequently stereotyped, or if your show even looks too weird, then mainstreamers will be driven off, fearing, as an old editorial in On Spec so brialliantly put it: “the SF cooties”. Also in terms of accessibility, a mainstreamer must be able to tune into pretty much any episode and be able to get into it despite their lack of backstory/previous episode experience.
With those ground rules in mind, what SF series (ongoing series, new series, and old series in active reruns all count – old series that are not currently being aired do not count) would make good gateway experiences and which ones wouldn’t?
Here’s my take:
Anything Star Trek is immediately disqualified. To the mainstream mind, Trek = nerd. No matter how good some of the episodes may have been in some of the series, the amount of scorn the franchise suffers in the minds of mainstreamers is about as high as a pile of Tribbles in a quatrotriticalene silo. The fact that some out there on the net may be chomping at the bit to correct my spelling (admittedly probably inaccurrate) of quatrotriticalene only adds weight to the argument. The dialogue in any given Trek is also heavily freighted with self-referential jargon, guaranteed to lose the interest of a mainstreamer in about a half-second. Let’s not even get into the shadow of The Shat.
“Reaper” is also off the list of potentials. It’s funny as hell and one of my favourites right now, but despite the presence of various supernatural baddies, I don’t think the mainstream audience would really be stimulated by it to take up other SF shows or start reading fantasy novels. They’d be more likely to enjoy it as a one-off.
Similarly, “Chuck” and “My Own Worst Enemy” are probably out too. I think mainstreamers would probably view them as shows with a spy bent, and perhaps tacitly acknowledge any sci-fi flourishes, but wouldn’t be driven by them to pursue SF any further.
I think “Heroes” is also unlikely to create any new fans. Putting aside the continuous downward spiral of the plot’s quality, at best “Heroes” probably resurrects some fondness for the superhero sub-genre, but I doubt it’s enough to get people out buying the latest Frank Miller or Alan Moore comic or tracking down old editions of George R. R. Martin’s “Wildcards” anthologies.
“The Sarah Connor Chronicles”? Maybe. Not a high degree of likelihood, but maybe. The big action and disfunctional family drama components might draw them in, and these might make the obvious sci-fi elements represented by the various Terminators more palatable. Would it be enough to inspire mainstreamers to crack open a Harlan Ellison collection, or hunt-down stories involving robots or time travel? I’m not totally convinced, but I’ll allow that it’s possible.
“Battlestar Galactica” is another maybe. Certainly it has the highest calibre of characterization and plot. But the accessibility is pretty iffy. The show has a gigantic story arc that could easily lose someone lacking sufficient backstory – despite the recaps at the top of each episode. The setting is aboard starships, but, aside from occasional exterior cutaways and the occasional battles, most of the story takes place within the confines of the vessels, and thus could be anywhere, making the sets reasonably accessible. The Cylons in their cybrid forms are easy to accept, and the traditional centurion models offer enough overt sci-fi menace to remind the audience that this is an SF show. BSG is one of my all-time favourite shows, so it certainly pains me to not say definitely that “this is the gateway show!”, but the weight of the backstory makes me think this would be a tough one to use as a gateway experience. You’d certainly have to pick the right episode.
The other possibility on my list is the new “Doctor Who” (somewhere, harrysaxon is cheering – it’s his personal mission to make every human being on Earth a fan of The Doctor – which, in fact, could be the plot of an episode of DW – whoa). The plots are consistently entertaining and the characters have enough depth to be worth watching. Accessibility with this show is a bit of a see-saw: David Tenannt certainly makes The Doctor a character you want to watch, and the various Companions are excellent vantage points for the perspectives of the audience – they’re just as confused as we are by all the strangeness going on from episode to episode. But it’s the over-the-top weirdness of some of the far-future or alien settings or the surreal TARDIS itself that might lose a mainstreamer. Again, “Doctor Who” is like BSG, you’d have to find the right episode for it to be effective as a gateway experience.
I have to confess, if I could break the rules and nominate a show that’s no longer on-air, I’d have to say that “The Twilight Zone” was probably the best SF gateway show ever. Different episodes featured different subject matter (from the disturbingly near-normal to the far-out) with different actors, written by different authors. It was a showcase of SF variety that had something for pretty much anyone, and if an episode was good enough, not only could a mainstreamer get hooked on the series, they might also be motivated to check out other SF shows or, hopefully, books. Ah, the good old days!
Harrysaxon’s been chomping at the bit to weigh-in on this topic, so he’ll take it from here.
“I agree with much of what bloginhood has to say about the topic – and certainly wholeheartedly endorse Doctor Who as a gateway show. The new series, of course, not the old, which is so thick with bad effects and complex backstory that even a lot of North American sci-fi lovers view it as somewhat esoteric. But the new series has added a great deal of the human element; the arc of Russell T. Davies’s tenure is less about the Doctor, and more about his first companion of the new series, Rose Tyler, a sympathetic Cockney from a working-class background who clicked instantly with fans in the UK. The personal drama – detractors may say soap opera elements – that Rose and her family brought to the series made it much more accessible to a wide-scale audience. The references and characters from the original series are there for the hardcore fans, but it’s immediately accessible for new fans as well. But most important, this is a show which can conjure powerfully emotional scenarios that make even the most macho of dedicated viewers feel a little thickness at the back of the throat. I’d personally recommend starting at the beginning, with S1E1 “Rose”; however, the one-off S3 episode “Blink”, in which the Doctor plays a peripheral role, may be a better introduction for those not sure they’re ready to commit to the full arc of the series. I’ve certainly used it to hook at least two people immediately, one of them hard enough to travel to the UK last summer to see David Tennant play Hamlet on stage.
But that’s just my addition to bloginhood’s nomination. My nomination is somewhat less obscure, as it is a pop culture phenomenon; Lost. Now, when Lost moved from the realm of a scripted Survivor-like experience in the first season firmly into the realm of science fiction with the second series, it turned a lot of viewers off (as well as ending its Emmy success, as they cannot abide science fiction for some reason). But that came as a surprise to viewers, hooked on an experience of watching a bunch of people try to find food and shelter and cope with a threatening group of outsiders on the island. Anyone coming into the series at this point, prepared with the foreknoweldge that it is a science fiction series, shouldn’t be as taken aback by the appearance of underground bunkers protecting electromagnetic anomalies as the early adopters.
Just to get it out of the way, some may call it up for debate that Lost is science-fiction at all; certainly there have always been elements of the supernatural creeping around the edges as well. But at this late date, I’m willing to accept the creators’ word that the remaining mysteries will ultimately have scientifically plausible explanations, albiet involving fictional technologies. I’m choosing to avoid spoilers, but the most recent major cliffhanger we were left with, as impossible as it seemed, was familiar ground for people acquainted with Doctor Who’s futuristic technologies which have plausible scientific backing.
But the reason I think it makes a great gateway is because the sci-fi stuff isn’t all up in your face. The major focus of the show is action and drama, with a heavy dose of romance and tragedy. It’s not a science fiction show with strong dramatic elements; it’s more a drama with strong science fiction elements. If you can get hooked on the personal stories of Jack, Kate, Locke, Charlie, Hurley et al., then you may find that the scientific mysteries surrounding characters such as Desmond begin to draw you in as much as wondering whether Kate will decide to hook up with Jack or Sawyer. It’s a good show, too; it lacks the strong dialogue and bold characters of my favourite shows, most of which have appeared on HBO, but it’s still compelling. Well, except for that 8 episode mini-arc that opened season 3. That was a bump in the road towards what looks to be one of the most compelling series finales of all time.”
But we want to hear from you: what TV shows do you think would make the best SF gateways?