Serialised Television Has Become A Disease

At New York Comic Con, during the Star Trek: Discovery panel, Alex Kurtzman said something that I've been thinking about a lot. He said that you couldn't do "City on the Edge of Forever" now, because Kirk would have to spend a whole season mourning Edith Keeler.

Image: "City on the Edge of Forever," Star Trek, CBS

Instantly, something in me rebelled. "But 'City on the Edge of Forever' is perfect the way it is!" I thought. "City of the Edge of Forever" is rightly considered a classic: an episode where an out of his mind McCoy travels back in time and saves a woman's life. In following him, Kirk falls for the woman, named Edith Keeler, only to discover that if she doesn't die, all of history is changed for the worse.

So, he has to go back in time again and let her die. As a self-contained story, it does everything that it needs to do. There's a part of me that feels that focusing on the aftermath for any significant period of time would dilute the effectiveness of the episode. And while it would be more realistic for Kirk to spend more time devastated, the point of the episode -- sacrifice for the common good -- would be lost because it would instead have to focus on a completely different point, namely the effect of trauma on Kirk.

We'd be sacrificing one truth for another.

For one reason or another, I've been thinking a lot about Star Trek lately.

Most of the time, the various Star Trek shows told self-contained stories along the lines of "the crew arrives at a planet/meets a new person, and a story unfolds from there." There were overarching themes or stories, yes, but a lot of the value of those shows was in seeing a crew we knew encounter something we didn't. You can watch a lot of Star Trek episodes without knowing a ton about the show and still understand what it's trying to convey.

And that's true even of episodes late into the series' runs. You can watch the Voyager season six episode "Blink of an Eye," about the Voyager visiting a planet where time moves quickly and generations try to understand what the new object in their sky is, and you can grasp instantly that it's a story about how a routine thing in your life can have a profound effect on someone else's without having to know everything in the history of the show.

Meanwhile, I can't imagine recommending a single episode from the last season of The Walking Dead in the same manner.

The X-Files likewise split its time between episodes that dealt with large, overarching plots and "monster of the week" episodes. And while the big mythology episodes were satisfying for fans, you wouldn't recommend one of those for someone who just wanted to a taste of the show. You'd recommend "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" or "Home," depending on that person's tastes.

And that's the other thing lost with the push to serialization: variety. The connective tissue was the characters we knew and loved. The seasons had a lot of tonal shifts but no one really complained that it wasn't "realistic". It was all fine because of course Mulder and Scully's whole lives weren't just chasing down a conspiracy, or light-hearted romps, or terrifying encounters with monsters. Hell, their lives weren't even all shown to us.

Stuff clearly happened between episodes. A lot of the time, now, episodes flow directly from the end of one to the beginning of the next, creating an effect that's more like a 13-hour movie, where everything is continuous.

Image: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," X-Files (Fox)

At New York Comic Con, X-Files creator/showrunner Chris Carter told press that this change in perception of how TV stories have to be told has changed the writing of the rebooted X-Files a bit. "It's known as a show that has a mythology and standalone episodes, and so the audience has always gone with us from one thing to another," he said. "I would say we're even working harder to make those transitions seamless where we never worked quite as hard when the series was originally on. We would just do a hardcore mythology episode and go right into a comedy episode. And the audience always went with us. I think we're more careful about that now."

Save for sitcoms, it seems like there's a definite polarization happening in terms of serialization versus episodic television. Along with with seasons of television that are binged, analysed, and dissected endlessly for clues about where they're going, there's also been a rise in anthologies, miniseries and made-for-TV movies. Both Game of Thrones and Black Mirror have critical, commercial, and zeitgeist-y success with radically different approaches to television.

The middle ground, however, has vanished.

It's harder now for a show to have a few perfect episodes -- episodes that, on their own, justify the existence of the whole show. Everything is so intertwined that you can't tease out a single episode that's fun to watch on its own merits. There are people who still feel the end of Lost poisoned the rest of the show. Maybe if the mythology hadn't taken over, that could have been prevented.

That, more than the stuff about hope or violence or even cursing, is what I'm looking for when I watch Star Trek: Discovery -- that perfect episode that was more a morality play performed by characters I loved than the puzzle piece of a grand design.

The way Discovery is shaking out -- the way all television works now -- I have trouble seeing where a standalone episode isn't an aberration rather than part of the fabric. Which makes that show getting its own "City on the Edge of Forever", "The Inner Light", "Far Beyond the Stars", "The Thaw" or "In a Mirror, Darkly", to name one for each other Star Trek show. We're never going to see a crew of people we know stop by a planet with a portal to the past, use it, and then move on to the next thing.

That's not "realistic". Even if it did reveal a truth.

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Comments

    You know the Orville gives you this fix right? Week to week adventures with only tiny threads that carry through rewarding constant viewing...

    there's nothing stopping them. The Orville is non-serialized and despite critics hating it it's getting decent ratings and audience scores are high.

    Despite agreeing with a large chunk of this article's arguments, I think that the increased quality of television drama as a whole is a pretty good trade-off. I love the fact that I am expected to pay attention from episode to episode and that there is an expectation from studios that people will not settle for average stuff any more. Saying "this is a brilliant episode" is a vastly inferior feeling to saying, "The whole series is pretty much of this quality."

    (That said, occasionally I just like to watch a single episode of a show and I mostly watch stuff from the 70s and 80s for that because I just want to experience a "moment" on its own. If it's something modern I'm after, I'll usually chuck on a movie.)

    I like monster/mystery of the week episodes in shows like Xfiles and Supernatural, and when they bog down completely in the conspiracy stuff it becomes frustrating. I don't mind the overarching story and characters suffering effects from stuff that happened earlier in the show. But I don't want it to be *just* about the characters. If it's a scifi or horror show then it needs to be about the cool stuff too.

    It's a fine line to tread, if you don't show characters dealing with catastrophic events an episode or two down the track then you're failing at characterization. But too much and it just devolves into a soapie drama.

    Except Discovery is not as serialised as they hyped it to be. They're still solving the problem each week, it's just that the problem may have been introduced in the previous episode. Yes there is an overarching thread running through the show (Klingon War, Burnham's potential redemption, space mushrooms). They solved the USS Glen mystery the same episode it started in, they worked out the spore drive out in the next episode using the Tardigrade, they freed the Tardigrade and introduced creepy mirror staments.

    Each story has still been a fairly well boxed story - it's just an element of each has just carried over.

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    I used hate the way Star Trek and Star Gate to a lesser degree would have a huge episode where something monumentally would happen and change a characters perspective but then they go back to their 'starting' position the next week.

    the one that springs to mind the most was Stargate Atlantis, we had spent years laughing and rolling our eyes along with Dr McKay and his self indulgent but lovable personae but then there was this episode where he was trapped under the water and finally his character showed real depth, he see him dropping the façade and he was suddenly even more brilliant and more complicated than a comedic 'fool'.

    I was expecting this to be a turning point in his character, but nope next week, it was like it never happened. He must have felt so short-changed as an actor. I dont miss those type of shows but Doctor Who still does them well. (though sure some will disagree with me on that)

    I think how we watch tv has shaped the tv that gets made.

    Before streaming services and dvds if you missed an episode it could be really hard to catch up, nowadays services like Netflix pick up exactly where you left off making it easy not to miss any story.

    Personally I'm not a fan of serious shows that don't have an overall story, I find those crime or lawyer shows too formulaic.

    That may be the case of more modern drama serialisation, the rule is a guest character / star has no lasting impact and is more an easter egg or a reminder at occasions that reflect on a relevant story.

    Even looking at TNG and say compare the main impactful episodes, their effects in future stories is more narrative segways related to the current story to make the watcher/character relate to the current situtation more easily.

    A disease? Really? That's the wording you are going with for the headline?
    A disease suggests it is something we need to get rid of, and it really is not!

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