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Sci-Fi 101: Imitation Is Not Always Flattery

Familiarity sometimes does breed contempt, like with ‘The Gates’

In the world of science-fiction entertainment, the old cliché, The more things change, the more they stay the same seems to apply now more than ever.

Familiar themes and scenarios consistently get recycled as new shows spring up that closely resemble both the successes and failures of the recent past. Its not surprising: a runaway success will often spawn imitators, while creative misfires will inspire others to try again.

Reuse of themes and subgenres often results in a complaint about the lack of originality among current television writers, directors and producers. Some of this criticism is, in fact, deserved because, in many cases, the imitators are just plain awful.

But, while I found ABCs summer series The Gates to be a disappointment, there is no doubt that the vampire craze is here to stay, at least for the short term, and trying to capitalize on that popularity is justified. The problem was not necessarily the reuse of the theme, but rather the execution, and perhaps, the marketing of it.

Unfortunately, imitators of a popular trend miss more often than they hit. Bookstore shelves are littered with adolescent literature trying to capitalize on the fame of Harry Potter. Numerous movies have strived to be the next Lord of the Rings franchise. As a result, the genre has seen a considerable amount of recycling of the last decade. The television industry is, perhaps, the worst offender.

I examined several of the recent trends in science-fiction and fantasy television. My judgments were based on a combination of critical reception, cultural impact and, to a much lesser degree, ratings. Ratings alone do not determine the success or failure of a program. A show with low ratings could in fact have been a solid program. Some shows deserved exactly what they got, whether that was a decade long run or early cancellation. Others deserved a much better or much worse fate than what was actually received.

Shows With Complex Mythologies and Flexible Timelines

Success: Lost kept viewers puzzled for six seasons, taking years to answer some question, while leaving some unanswered. Despite its flaws, and some really atrocious episodes in Seasons 2 and 3, it solidified the serialized drama as a staple of television during the early part of the 21st Century. Imitators have, and will continue to follow, but until J.J. Abrams returns with an official Lost sequel, it may be best to wait on the sidelines.

Failure: Despite an intriguing opening sequence in the pilot, FlashForward was plagued with terrible acting, uninteresting characters and a sluggish pace. It may have worked as a four-hour miniseries, but as a full season program, it was torturous at times.

Jurys still out: If I were to judge it by its pilot, I would be ready to label The Event an abject failure. The timeline was impossible to follow, the characters were dull and uninteresting, and the events were muddled and unclear. Its hard to imagine that viewers will have much patience with this series.

Time Travel

Success: Doctor Who is the Energizer bunny of time travel television and deserves a place in history for longevity alone. Still, despite an occasional bump in the road, it usually provides quality entertainment. Life on Mars failed to get renewed for a second season, but creatively, it had some interesting moments and stayed true to the 1970s.

Failure: Journeyman failed on almost every level that the classic series Quantum Leap succeeded. Kevin McKidd is a decent enough actor, but the supporting cast lacked chemistry, and the episodes were sluggish and often poorly conceived.

Cross-Dimensional Travel

Success: The entire Stargate franchise has been an enormous success, but the current series Stargate: Universe may just be the best yet.

Failure: Flash Gordon may be the worst series in modern history to get a full season order, courtesy of -the writers strike of 2007-08. Hideous action, lame special effects, and acting akin to a high school play, its hard to find much positive to say.

Secret Organizations that Protect Secrets

Successes: Torchwood and Warehouse 13 are so much fun that I almost wish such organizations did actually exist. Sure the acting is suspect in both, and each series has offered up its own fair share of poorly conceived episodes. But overall, both are quite consistent in their presentation.

Failures: Sanctuary is somehow still on television despite, well, being awful. I have been told by many that it is much better than when it started, but quite frankly, Ive never had the urge to go back. Similarly, many have tried to convince me that the atrocious Joss Whedon flop Dollhouse was good, despite the fact that my own senses confirmed that this was an uninteresting series, about an unsympathetic character, filled with plotlines and stories that nobody really cared about.

If a series takes nearly a dozen episodes to find itself, then it probably isnt worth finding.

Vampires and Other Monsters as Members of the Community

Success: Despite its flaws, and there are plenty. True Blood is quite simply engaging, gritty, and violent. It does not romanticize vampirism, but has a dark humor that can only be fully appreciated by making a total commitment to the series.

Even with marginal acting and predictable and clichéd plotlines, The CWs The Vampire Diaries is surprisingly entertaining every week. The town of Mystic Falls may be the most engaging character in the series — it resembles nearly every suburban town in the United States.

Moonlight, despite failing in the ratings, attracted a loyal following with personable characters with great chemistry. The biggest demon in this case was CBS.

Failure: Some say The Gates tried to be a cross between Twilight and Desperate Housewives. Regardless of what it was trying to be, it succeeded in being a disappointment, both creatively and in the ratings. While the show did contain some intriguing moments, the teenaged characters simply werent likeable at all.

New Amsterdam was about an immortal being cursed to star in this awful program, or something like that.

Superhero Shows

Success: Smallville has somehow managed to last 10 seasons. Sure they recycle storylines, and Lois has had enough concussions to put her and about a dozen other people into a permanent coma. But every year, it manages to come back with at least a marginally interesting storyline.

Failure: Despite a very good first season, Heroes was terrible for the next three. Some may find that assessment a bit too harsh, but think of it like this: If you scored 25 percent on a test, what would the grade be?

Enough said.

Jurys Still Out: No Ordinary Family has yet to debut on television (although the pilot was released online), so it is impossible to judge.

Alternate Worlds

Success: While I pulled no punches in declaring Whedons Dollhouse a failure, I must also give him credit for creating the outer space western Firefly. While a bit old to be on the list, creatively, it created a very unique world with memorable characters. Similarly the short lived series Kings deserved a much better fate than it received.

Both of these series are excellent and simply proved that the general viewing audience simply was not ready for an alternate universe. Despite some bumpy ratings, “Fringe” has also succeeded, at least creatively, with its doppelganger of our own world.

Battlestar Galactica” undoubtedly ranks as a huge success as well.

Jurys Still Out: Caprica certainly has its moments of creative genius, but the sad truth is, it has not yet found its stride. While some of the acting is actually quite good, characterization could use a bit more work, and the pace, at times, crosses the line from tedious to infuriating.

This is a series still taking its baby steps, but viewers so far have been unwilling to make a full commitment to it. Even I have found myself putting off watching some of the episodes, despite the fact that I can see the enormous potential it has.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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