I was discussing the recent merger (takeover) of NBC/Universal by Comcast at work today with some newly hired employees during their orientation. Someone brought up the fact that with the merger, Comcast now owns the SciFi (or the idiotic rebrand SyFy) channel—and maybe Comcast will change it back—and that, as a geek, I must be quite happy about it. And at first blush, it seems like good news. But then it occurred to me, SyFy is not the channel it once was. Once was a time when all SciFi showed was Star Trek episodes, Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and any number of classic Science Fiction tv shows and movies. Now they are more focused on creating original series and movies. Therein lies the problem: there is no originality anymore.
There are two main divisions at SyFy, original Series like Stargate SG1 Atlantis and Universe, BattleStar Galactica and many others; and original movies with titles like Android Apocalypse, Alien Apocalypse, Anonymous Rex, Aztec Rex etc. One division makes good content, and one makes garbage. The original series are fan favorites and get great reviews and big budgets, while the original movies have all the polish of a high school film club production. They trot out the same plot devices and recast them with either B-movie starts or A-list has-beens and shoot the same garbage over and over again.
It isn’t just the movie division that has originality issues. Stargate SG1 even made jokes about the plots they lifted and just barely retooled from Star Trek. It was an inside joke among fans and many made a contest of guessing which episode was being spoofed any particular week. The latest version of Stargate is called Stargate Universe where a group of scientists and soldiers are trapped on an Ancient starship billions of light-years from home and they have to survive while trying to figure out how to get home. Sound familiar? In the early 80’s the TV show Buck Rodgers spent its third season wandering the galaxy in a starship. Battlestar Galactica was predicated on a band of humans wandering the galaxy fighting to survive. The fourth series to bear the Star Trek franchise was about a starship named Voyager that was flung billions of light-years out of our quadrant of space and struggling to survive and find their way home.
Go to the movie theaters and you see the same problem played out in multibillion dollar special effects laden cinemascope surround sound. All of the big budget movies this holiday season are either franchise films like Harry Potter, sequels like Twilight, reboots like Sherlock Holmes and adaptations like Robin Hood. The number of films coming out of Hollywood that are not related in some direct way to an earlier film are exceedingly few.
But the problem goes even deeper than retreads of old movies. The movies that seem to be original actually borrow generously from other films of the genre due to film makers tendency to follow formula. One of the things I do that annoys friends and family members is predict the outcome of any given movie or TV show with consistent accuracy. I am not clairvoyant, I just understand the thinking of the writers who plot the films. The good guy gets the girl is the cliché, but it works, so it keeps getting used. It is a movie making machine that works like any automated production system; just using the cookie cutter mentality to score the box office dollars. How many vampire movies and TV series popped up after Twilight scored so high at the box office?
Sadly, this is one problem that won’t be fixed. Not because no one wants to fix it; I know of many writers working very diligently to develop original content. The problem is that in the course of human events, just about anything that can happen has happened and that story has already been told at least once. Nothing surprises people anymore. Once we start getting surprised, maybe we can see some original stories on the screen again. Until then, I’m looking forward to Iron Man 2 and Jurassic Park 4.