In an earlier post or two, I’ve said that it’s time to move on from the Star Trek franchise and create a new SF TV franchise. Why? Because Star Trek was a show built around the concerns and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century; it is now time for a show that examines the issues of the nascent twenty-first century.
We’ve had a few SF shows come and go since then, and most of their formats have been pretty familiar (some of which because they were reboots). But I was recently reminded of a show format that hasn’t been used in science fiction television for literally forty years: That of the TV series Search. Maybe this particular format is due for a comeback.
Any readers here who are less than 50 years old will probably not remember Search. Produced by Leslie Stevens, and based on the format of an earlier show of his, The Name of the Game, Search was a show about a high-tech investigations organization, connecting three field agents with a sophisticated Control Center of computer and communications experts and specialists. The field agents, played by Tony Franciosa, Doug McClure and Hugh O’Brien, all had distinct covers and methods of operation, and specialized in certain types of investigations each… and each carried a sophisticated scanner and communications device that linked them to the Control Center. With the help of the Control Center (headed by popular actor Burgess Meredith, post-Penguin and pre-Mickey), monitoring their actions and vitals and supplying them information in realtime, they solved their cases and brought in their men.
(In this way, it has a lot of similarities to a current TV show, Person of Interest: Agents in the field, being assisted in realtime by computers and connections to public and private networks and surveillance systems. Of course, no one at the time was worried about the “ubiquitous and pervasive” surveillance environment of the show that PoI highlights… maybe viewers assumed then that it could never really happen…)
Now here’s the unique format I mentioned: The show followed only one agent in each episode—one week it was Tony, the next it was Doug, then Hugh, then back to Tony, etc—with the Control Center being the common element in each episode. The field characters would even occasionally mention the others, since they’re all part of the same organization, but were rarely or never seen in the same episode together. (Tony Franciosa was also one of the stars of The Name of the Game… obviously Stevens and Franciosa thought they had a good thing going in recreating their earlier show with a new science fiction element.)
This essentially allowed for extra time to produce each actor’s segment, as well as each of the three starring actors’ working a third as much to finish one season of shows (with most of the common element supporting actors working at a lower scale, this could potentially mean a significant cash savings to production—but it may have only meant the leads worked less for the same money). And the other advantage is having three starring actors, not one, creating more of an audience draw (most viewers might have one favorite, but they watched most of the shows with their non-favorites as well).
Here’s why I think this is a great format for a new SF series: Star Trek was essentially about a huge battleship full of every military and scientific expert possible, and that one big ship got into absolutely everything. In the latter half of the twentieth century, where the outside world held a lot of unknowns, including the potential for high-powered enemies and cold-war threats, showing up on an isolated and unknown island with a full military complement almost makes sense.
But today, we are much more familiar with the world out there. Our threats aren’t from big bads with A-bombs, they’re from terrorists with IEDs, hackers and corrupt politicians. We’re less concerned with who might jump out of the rocks behind us, and more concerned with who’s monitoring us from the cellphones in our hands. It’s a very different world, one in which it makes little sense to sail into every little port with a battleship filled with operatives looking for trouble.
This is the age of the small team of specialists, moving on advanced knowledge on where they’re going and what they expect to find. A modern SF series should be indicative of this: A universe where we already have some knowledge of the places we’ll visit, or what we expect to find there, and send specialized teams accordingly.
This new show could follow a different crew each week, with a common organization or coordinating body tying them all together, similarly to Search. Perhaps one team is made up of archeologists, searching for signs of alien civilizations (and occasionally finding them); another team might be geologists, searching for new fuel sources or other exotic elements; another team could be environmentalists, seeking new planets to settle, or new flora and fauna to add to our information; and another group is a military or police body, perhaps looking for relics of past wars, seeking out terrorist placements, or tracking down that idiot old soldier who doesn’t know the war ended fifty years ago. One could even be a one-person operation, a traveling troubleshooter dealing with smaller problems and helping out where needed.
Each team’s story would be different, based on the type of missions they embarked on, and their unique set of problems. The audience would get stories of a greater variety, and connecting elements would help connect the disparate story types together, keeping their attention during the weeks when the story types weren’t their favorite. Smaller groups also tend to create more intimate relationships, enabling more personal stories that audiences respond favorably to.
There is admittedly one downside to this show format: Maintaining multiple groups, or units, of different actors, sets, etc, can be more costly than maintaining only one core group. Science fiction shows already tend to have larger-than-usual budgets, so this show could be inordinately expensive, not feasible for small-budget production at all.
On the other hand, science fiction is already notorious for needing extra production time, to handle special effects, elaborate sets and costumes, experimenting with makeup, etc. Giving each production group more time in which to produce their segments for airing might make for a better production, not to mention serving audiences by being able to get more shows on air at once, and not being forced to break into small mini-seasons to accommodate lengthy production demands. And having to rush through the work might even allow some financial savings to each episode.
This format brings with it a number of possibilities, both for the show setup and for the organization of its multiple units and the core element that ties them together. And being that this format hasn’t been used for so long, it automatically means creating a show that will feel fresh and innovative to its audience. Actors could be kept with their groups, or mixed and matched depending on the story’s need. This also allows more actors a chance to get a bit of the limelight by being part of smaller ensembles, a much better deal than being part of a large ensemble and possibly not getting meaty scenes for months apart. There may be budget short-cuts possible (do they all travel to other planets? Use the same ship, and change the name and a few external features for each group). It may even be feasible to “farm out” production to smaller or local groups looking to make a mark in Hollywood. It makes for some interesting organization and production possibilities.
Cost alone may prevent this from ever happening; but I, for one, would love to see the variety and innovation we’d get from a science fiction TV production set up along these lines.