Sense of Wonder: Sci-Fi Soap Opera Hell

While recently revisiting the original STAR TREK series (thanks to the modern miracle of Netflix instant viewing), I began to feel as if I have been living in a hell of my own creation. “Be careful what you wish for,” warns the old saying, but I heeded the warning too late: my wish came true, and now I suffer, hoping for some disruption in the time-space continuum that will return me to an earlier, simpler era – before continuity killed casual interest in episodic television.
My interest in STAR TREK has run hot and cold over the decades; I have always felt that the original series’ reputation rested on a dozen or two great episodes, with the rest running from mediocre to ridiculous (e.g. “Spock’s Brain”). One element that particularly galled me back when I was a know-it-all teenager was the slip-shod approach to continuity. Similar situations arise, but no one seems to notice or take advantage of the past experience that might help them deal with the new problem. Supporting characters – who are supposed to be long-term members of the Enterprise crew – are introduced onto the bridge for a single episode, treated as if they have been there all along, and then sent off to off-screen oblivion – even if they are not the infamous red-shirted lieutenants whose only function is to die before the opening credits. Worst of all, over the course of the first half of the first season, James T. Kirk goes from being an obsessed, driven captain – so devoted to his ship that it eclipses his personal life – to being a promiscuous ladies’ man, who almost literally falls in love with a new woman (alien or otherwise) every week.
Why, I lamented years ago, couldn’t there be a little more attention to continuity? Keep the characters consistent. Reference previous episodes. Introduce supporting characters for a few episodes instead of acting as if they have always been on the bridge. And stop killing off those anonymous red-shirts – let them appear on an episode or two beforehand, so that their deaths come across as a real shock.
More or less, my wish came true with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, which made a genuine effort toward maintaining continuity. However, by the end of that show’s run, I was starting to have second thoughts, and things only got worse with DEEP SPACE NINE and VOYAGER. With the increasing emphasis on continuity and continuing story arcs, STAR TREK became less focused on igniting our Sense of Wonder by exploring the unknown and more focused on the mundane details of the characters’ lives.
In effect, the STAR TREK franchise, in its modern forms, morphed from science fiction to soap opera. This Soap Opera Syndrome has only spread and increased over the years, infecting most of the current crop of televised science fiction (HEROES, LOST, FRINGE, etc). In fact, it has reached a point where casual viewers might just as well be turned away from the metaphoric door, because the price of admission into the inner sanctum is a devotion to the arcane minutea of back story and continuity  that seems almost deliberately designed to intimidate the uninitiated.
Let’s face it: If you’ve only heard that LOST is a great show, there is little point in checking out an episode or two to see what it’s all about – because you will find yourself lost, with almost no idea what is going on. Whereas the original TREK was an attempt to throw open the doors to the halls of science fiction – an effort to invite everyone in and say, “Hey, there’s something wonderful here, if you will only take a chance” – the strategy now is to hook the hard-core fans with byzantine plot threads that induce an elevated sense of self-importance in the psyche.  Watching contemporary soap opera sci-fi is a bit like achieving membership in an esoteric cult, which requires knowledge forbidden to outsiders, thus rendering the insiders somehow special.
The irony here is that the original STAR TREK, in episodes ranging from “This Side of Paradise” to “Return of the Archons,” frequently preached that being “of the body” was not a good thing. Cult-like devotion – even when it brought happiness, peace, and prosperity – was somehow so antithetical to the true goals of the human spirit that it had to be obliterated. If the crew of the Enterprise were to beam down to Earth today and see sci-fi television fans, whose favorite shows require an almost encyclopediac – not to mention academic – understand of the details, it is safe to say that Captain Kirk – or at least William Shatner – would admonish them to “Get a life!”
None of this is meant to say that the current sci-fi shows are bad or that old STAR TREK episodes are the zenith in television entertainment. Rather, I am merely pointing out how pleasant it is, while searching through my Netflix cue, to be able to select a favorite episode, knowing that it will stand on its own; my enjoyment will not depend on knowing what happened three episodes earlier – or in the previous season.
There is something nice about that welcoming feeling. The doors to the original TREK remain wide open to all viewers willing to climb aboard the Enterprise, and the great thing is, you don’t have to sign on for the full five-year mission; you can take a brief jaunt to a planet or two, skip the stops that hold no interest, and resume whenever your wanderlust rekindles.
Compare that to something like SMALLVILLE, a hit show that almost studiously avoids letting newbies in. Watching a handful of episodes recently, I was able slog my way through only because of a passing familiarity with the comic books and the movies; at this point, the series itself assumes you know the whole back story and makes no provisions for those who don’t. Consequently, coming in cold is almost totally pointless; the only satisfaction derived is not aesthetic but intellectual, from being able to piece together enough information to figure out the significance of what is happening. In the course of my brief viewership, major characters were reintroduced and dispatched almost as quickly as those walk-on victims in STAR TREK; I knew these were major dramatic developments to the faithful, but I couldn’t really care less, even though I tried.

Jennifer Love Hewitt as THE GHOST WHISPERER
Jennifer Love Hewitt as THE GHOST WHISPERER

Somewhat better in this regard are SUPERNATURAL and THE GHOST WHISPERER. Both series try to maintain continuity with past episodes, but they also make episodes with self-contained plots. Yes, earlier developments may play a role in current events, but that back story is clear and simple enough to be rendered in a brief montage (“previously seen on…”) before the opening teaser.
In other ways, SUPERNATURAL and GHOST WHISPERER are almost opposites: in the former, our heroes go out looking for problems, while in the latter, people bring their problems to Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Either way, once you know the premise, you can sit down and enjoy an episode of either series (assuming they are to your taste of course). You may miss a few subtleties, but the main narrative thread will be easy to follow.
All of which brings us back to those old TREK episodes. Watching them again, I remain convinced that the show’s batting average was one in three at best, but now that viewing technology has freed us from the weekly time slot, allowing us to choose what we want to see – and when – the continuity problems of STAR TREK now seem like a blessing in disguise. You can pick through your favorite episodes – the best of the best – without missing anything.
Obviously, the success of current sci-fi and fantasy series proves that there is a place for the kind of careful continuity arc for which I once yearned. But it would be nice if a few series would show some consideration for the fact that, beyond the faithful and the devout, there is another audience out there, one that is merely curious, and they might appreciate an opportunity to sample the wares without feeling obligated to take a crash course in artificial history.
UPDATE: This article has been corrected and slightly expanded.

One Reply to “Sense of Wonder: Sci-Fi Soap Opera Hell”

  1. I both agree and disagree with what you are saying, Steve. Certainly, the nature of television storytelling has changed, and since HILL STREET BLUES, more series have more complicated arcs, episodic stories that carry throughout a season. On the plus side, this can allow some terrific epic storytelling, such as BABYLON 5 or the recent BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series. On the other hand, it can definitely be off-putting to a newbie, as you suggest, who doesn’t know the characters (they are no longer so easily decoded) or why a given piece of drama is significant.
    In the original STAR TREK, it was easy to suss who the heroes are, what it was that they wanted, etc. Not every story was a winner by a long shot, but the characters became familiar and even in a not-so-great episode, it could be fun to spend time with them.
    On the other hand, as a long-time STAR TREK fan who grew up with the original series, the new J.J. Abrams version clearly announces to me that this “isn’t your father’s STAR TREK.” It has been significantly retooled, and from what I gather, with a lack of respect for prior continuity. It appears that it wants to hit the re-set button and begin the whole franchise all over again, but it is very hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice.
    THE NEXT GENERATION was STAR TREK, but it was definitely a STAR TREK that spoke more to the ’80s than to the ’60s. Elements of the show were altered to bring it up to date, and to my mind, that show didn’t really find its footing until Michael Piller came onboard in the third season.
    I like intelligent and interesting science fiction no matter what the label, so I wish the new Abrams version much luck, but after long association, when I hear “Captain Kirk” and “Spock,” naturally there are some expectations that come along with those characters. However, a new version does nothing to spoil anything about the old. Many people are thrilled with the updated STAR TREK Hi-Def released on HD-DVD (and no doubt will make it eventually to Bluray). There, a lot of respect was given to stay true to the original designs but augment them, but it still seems odd to me when I see a CGI Enterprise versus the original model. As much as I can understand a studio wishing to make a profit with “new, improved” versions (and some films have greatly benefited from being altered and adjusted, no question), there are times when it feels like some visigoths are trampling through my memories (“Han shot first!”).

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