The television will not be revolutionised

spiked-TV: Good shows, like Firefly and Veronica Mars, will prosper if freed from the whims of TV executives.

Niall Crowley

Topics Culture

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Over recent months both media and technology writers have been getting excited about the prospect of television and the internet converging. Many have talked about this possibility for years but it is at last starting to become a reality. Mobile phone manufacturers like Ericsson, and game console makers such as Nintendo, are developing web TV devices. In the US both Google and Apple are already offering legal downloads of popular shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives. And while those services are not yet available in the UK, it’s not too difficult to find places to download any American TV show you can think of.

My recent experience of trying to buy two American shows not available on British television makes me wish this technological revolution was already here.

While the technology is already in place to download TV shows, it’s illegal in the UK. As yet, the only thing on offer is a limited trial of ‘multicasting’ (live TV on your computer) from the BBC and ITV. That’s a shame because there are shows coming out of America I want the chance to see. Why should I be at the mercy of UK television executives? There are places I could download these programmes. But quite apart from the legal issues, I want to watch these programmes with my feet up on the sofa. I spend far too long looking at a computer screen as it is.

With this new high-tech TV wonderworld yet to arrive, I had no choice but to turn to DVD. One of the shows, Firefly was available on Amazon’s UK site, but teen detective show Veronica Mars was only available in America. Firefly arrived safely, if not exactly quickly. However I’m still waiting for Veronica Mars to arrive from America and I’m nearly fifty bucks down. I thought the internet was supposed to make life easier.

In the absence of my Veronica Mars DVD I had make do with what information I could find on the web. The show’s producers UPN, better known for shows like America’s Next Top Model and Friday Night Smackdown, screen clips and interviews relating to Veronica Mars on their website, but of course there’s nowhere to download an entire show legally.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Veronica Mars is a teenager – who happens to look like a 25 year-old model, but don’t they always – living in an affluent but stuffy town called Neptune. Her life takes a sudden downturn when her best friend is murdered, her father, the local sheriff, is removed from his job, her mother leaves mysteriously, and she is ostracised by the snobby rich kids at school. Then she goes to work for her old man at his new detective agency. Her adventures as junior PI, the well-written dialogue and storylines apparently mark the series out from the usual teenage dross that populates our screens. It has been labelled the ‘new Buffy’ by US fans, and Buffy creator Joss Whedon is quoted as saying it’s the best TV show he’s ever seen.

Veronica Mars was aired on UK pay-per-view channel Living TV in October last year. I, like most other people, completely missed it. It’s a mystery why such a highly-rated American show has been ignored by the terrestrial and larger digital UK channels like BBC2, Five or More 4, when so many of them fill up their prime-time slots with endless repeats of Friends, Will & Grace and other third-rate shows.

If we could only cut out the schedulers, viewers could benefit from greater choice. If they had a more direct relationship with the public, programme makers would be free to dream up shows they want to make and we want to watch. Something like this is beginning to happen in the UK music industry as a new generation of performers turn their back on the big record companies and aim their product directly at potential listeners. As a result, a healthy music scene is evolving.

Firefly, axed by US channel Fox halfway through its first season in 2002, is a good example. It’s a kind of ‘crossover’ drama aimed at both the teenage market and grown-ups. The risk with this approach can be that young viewers just don’t ‘get it’ and adults presume it’s kids stuff and don’t bother to watch. This may well be a factor in Firefly’s early demise.

However, since it was dropped from the US schedules the series is reported to have sold more than half a million copies on DVD. The sales and subsequent internet buzz prompted Universal Studios to commission a big screen adaptation, directed by series creator Joss Whedon. The resulting movie, Serenity, was described by many critics as one of the best action-adventure films of last year.

Firefly is less action-packed but more character-driven than Serenity. It takes a little time to get to know the characters and for storylines to develop. On paper the plot sounds like a Star Wars re-run, and Fox executives could be forgiven for expecting space battles, ray guns and a ‘once upon a time’ story line. Instead Whedon gave them horses, dark plotlines, witty dialogue and a female lead who is a prostitute.

The story is set in a low-tech future on an ageing space ship called Serenity. It’s crew are a defeated group of freedom fighters and a few mysterious passengers they picked up along the way, including a preacher hiding a violent past, and a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance. The most respectable person aboard is the prostitute, and the crew are forced to get by on their wits, transporting all manner of dodgy cargo and undertaking questionable jobs. They travel between remote Earth-like worlds on the edge of the Alliance’s territory.

The places they visit resemble the wild west more than say Blade Runner. Simple folk live a hand-to-mouth existence and there are more than enough crooks and gangsters around with whom the crew gets into all manner of scrapes. There are nice little quirks like the unexplained fact that everyone swears at each other in Chinese, or that the ships has a habit of scaring the locals’ horses whenever it lands.

There’s nothing particularly original about the show – it’s a blending of the sci-fi and western genres and it tells good old-fashioned stories. And like most contemporary science fiction it offers a fairly grim view of the future. But it’s well made, rarely does the obvious thing, and you’ll grow to love the characters. It is a real shame there is only one season. Roll on the revolution.

Firefly, Serenity and Veronica Mars are available on DVD from Amazon (UK). The first season of Veronica Marsis now being repeated on Living TV on Saturday mornings.

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Last week in spiked-TV: Rob Lyons on Stephen Poliakoff

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