Pilot season is always an interesting time for me. There’s a huge amount of new shows every year, and so few of them will actually end up being aired, and of those even fewer will get to finish out their season, much less get renewed for a second. Reading over the press releases, each show has its little elevator pitch-like description beneath it, designed to hook you on the premise as quickly as possible. And often times, it’s easy to see how that pitch could convince someone to produce the show. For example, here’s Defiance‘s press description:
Set in the near future, Defiance introduces an exotically transformed planet Earth, its landscapes permanently altered following the sudden – and tumultuous – arrival of seven unique alien races. In this somewhat unknown and unpredictable landscape, the richly diverse, newly-formed civilization of humans and aliens must learn to co-exist peacefully. Each week, viewers will follow an immersive character drama set in the boom-town of Defiance, which sits atop the ruins of St. Louis, MO, while in the game, players will adventure in the new frontier of the San Francisco Bay area. The dramatic tapestry of the series and the intense action of the game will exist in a single universe where their respective narratives will inform one another and evolve together into one overall story.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? I remember being very excited when it was announced because I honestly hadn’t seen a sci-fi show like that before. And Defiance has, more or less, lived up to its premise, even if the focus can be a little narrow sometimes. Not every show is so fortunate, however; the television landscape is strewn with the husks of sci-fi shows that failed to live up to their high concept promises. And it’s always a real shame, too, to look back on these wasted premises and imagine the amazing shows that could have come out of them. With that in mind, here are a few shows that fizzled out early on, leaving behind a premise unfulfilled.
4. Almost Human
Sure, the premise isn’t particularly original, but it’s a tried and true theme, enough so that TVTropes has a page for Androids and Detectives. But the show had a huge number of failings, many of which I saw for the first time while researching this article. See, as it turns out, the guys behind Almost Human were not interested in making a sci-fi show. They wanted a buddy cop show first, and science fiction second–and it shows. Almost all the science fiction elements come across as an afterthought, even when they were integral to the episode’s plot. Take, for example, the fifth episode that aired, “Blood Brothers”, which features a god damn psychic medium communicating with the dead. Seriously? After this has been proven to work, do they ever use this woman’s powers again? Nope. Then on top of that, it includes a ton of clones which are used for the very important purpose of committing crimes while giving the original an alibi, which is probably the least efficient means of covering your tracks of all time. Talk about mundane utility. And none of it is ever mentioned again. Don’t even get me started on “Simon Says,” which is the kind of “newfangled internet is bad” show I would have expected in the mid-90’s.
The fact of the matter is, there’s a reason Androids and Detectives are so common, and it’s that the two tropes play well against each other. It’s an interesting dynamic. But Almost Human didn’t make good on its promise, instead treating Dorian like a human who gained new powers as the plot demanded. It was hard to take the show’s insistence that the androids deserved to be treated as equals when Kennex was LITERALLY throwing them under a bus in the first episode. You’d think the costs of property damage alone would have been enough to fire him there. The city in the show had a Blade Runner-like dystopian sector which was severely underutilized, leaving most episodes to take place in the shiny sector that barely looks different from today. Watching it, I just couldn’t help but get the feeling they were making everything up as they went along, without any regards to how it would make other episodes look in hindsight. It’s sad, really, that the show hid under its police procedural structure; the actors weren’t the problem, and the world could have been fixed. But the procedural is the most generic, safest kind of show on television, with hundreds of predecessors just like it, and this thin veneer of science fiction wasn’t enough to set it apart. The kind of people who watch police procedurals aren’t the kind that want the biting social criticism that sci-fi can provide, and the kind of viewers who do want that sci-fi edge are going to be bored to tears by the predictable, episodic nature of a procedural. The show doomed itself from the start by aiming for the former, and we of the latter group are left to mourn another show that failed to live up to its potential.
3. V (2009)
As a remake, V had some very different problems to face during its run. If you’re not familiar, V was a show about Reptilian aliens who showed up at Earth, ostensibly to aid in our development, but (as Reptilian aliens are wont to do) actually wanted to secretly take over the planet. The original series had aired in the 80’s, so it still had some degree of familiarity among older viewers, but not the kind of recognizability that networks usually want from their remakes. The show had some interesting ideas, such as sleeper agents placed by the aliens who became sympathetic towards the humans, as well as an internal resistance movement called the Fifth Column that felt what the Visitors (as the aliens were called) were doing to the humans was wrong. It runs with the paranoid fantasies of UFO conspiracy theorists by confirming that lizard people really are disguised as numerous important leaders, and used this as a window into real-life issues like media manipulation and the malleability of public opinion.
However, the show had a lot of annoying characters, focused on things that weren’t very interesting instead of the things that demanded attention, and just generally didn’t deliver. The strange relationship developing between the main character Erica’s son and a Visitor is just one of the weird things the show chose to give screen time to instead. Of course, it didn’t stop there, and the second season starts making ridiculous notions like “they need humans in order to breed,” which is about one step below “To Serve Man” on the Horrible Reasons to Invade Earth checklist. Then there were also the allegations of incredibly weak political allegory, painting the entire show as a big shot at the then-newly-elected President Obama, which kind of brings the whole thing full circle on the batshit crazy train of conspiracy paranoia. ABC also kind of shot themselves in the foot on this one by airing four episodes in November 2009 and then waiting four months to show the rest, cutting the audience in half. It just wasn’t a good fit, either, since ABC had angled themselves into being more family- and female-oriented with shows like Dancing with the Stars (which took V‘s place upon the end of its season). I sometimes worry that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might suffer the same fate, although it at least has the movie franchise to lean on.
2. Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome
With the crash and burn of Caprica, a lot of hope was riding on Blood & Chrome to get this franchise back on track. Caprica‘s failure had been chalked up to the former BSG fan base rejecting the planet bound, gangster-focused subject matter that the new show had taken. (Personally I found Caprica disappointing for a whole host of reasons, which I may elaborate on some other time, but I wouldn’t call it a wasted premise so it’s not here.) So, when it came time to propose another BSG spinoff, they decided to take a more conventional approach, and depict a young Bill Adama in the midst of the First Cylon War. No gangsters, no mystical bullshit, just robot vs. human space battles.
Unfortunately, this show was fraught with problems right from the start. For starters, it was originally envisioned as a web series. Then, upon seeing some of the ideas, someone over at Syfy decided to go ahead and turn this into a TV-grade pilot. The problem? Well, for one, it wasn’t meant to be a pilot. The entire thing is shot on greenscreen, and, well… it looks like it. Everything has this aura of artificiality. Worse still, it uses digital reconstructions of the real sets from the 2004 BSG series, so comparing the two leaves much to be desired. And of course, you also have a younger actor who has to live up to Edward James Olmos’ performance, and do it on an empty set in front of a ChromaKey backdrop and little else. Upon seeing the final result, Syfy decided not to go forward, and then turned around and released it as a web series anyway. All this really meant was that what had been planned as individual short episodes got stitched together into a movie-length story, with the connective tissue removed, then ripped apart again and shown in ten minute segments that didn’t necessarily line up nicely the way they might have originally. They did eventually show it on TV, once, but that was it, and by then the show was but a smoldering mess of what might’ve been really interesting before executives fucked it up.
1. Terra Nova
I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed in a show than with Terra Nova. The gap between what this show promised and what it delivered was astonishing. In a futuristic, over-polluted earth, a time portal is found, which they use to send small groups of humans back in time to try to reestablish human society in the Cretaceous before everything went to shit. Contending with dinosaurs, political strife within the encampment, friction between military and colonists, and several different forces trying to change the way society developed to fit their vision, the show had a lot potential. There were a lot of philosophical issues to potentially mine as well, such as whether it’s right for them to ruin the future of a parallel Earth just to save themselves after ruining the first one. I’m not necessarily a big dinosaur fan, myself, but it was a good way to turn a familiar world into an alien one, in a way that’s not totally different from Defiance. The fact that they spent a huge amount of money getting this show set up led me to believe that Fox had a lot of confidence in the idea.
But boy was I (and everyone else) disappointed when the show actually premiered. Terra Nova tried to take a family-centered approach, focusing the story on the trials of the Shannon family, who had one more child than was legally allowed in their future and suffered greatly for it. Except all this really meant was that the show ended up being about spoiled teenage brats who didn’t listen when people told them not to go outside because THERE ARE FUCKING DINOSAURS OUT THERE. Son Josh is especially dickish, resentful about being brought to the past instead of being left to die in the toxic air with his old girlfriend (while immediately getting involved with a new girl). He also ends up betraying the whole colony just to get his girlfriend back. Imagine Irisa from Defiance, except instead of having any skills or even being an alien with an interesting backstory, it’s just a regular teenage human douche. It ended up being kind of like Full House in the jungle, with dinosaurs barely ever seen, to the point where one wonders why the hell they even bothered setting it in the Cretaceous. It’s the sort of clean, toothless sci-fi that results when a show had no confidence placed in it. I get the feeling they tried to make it accessible to children, knowing how much kids love dinosaurs, but ended up ripping out everything that could possibly be of interest to make it palatable to parents. It also suffered from having too many people involved, I think, from Star Trek alums like Brannon Braga to the big man himself, Stephen Spielberg. At least it ended with a T-Rex analogue saving the day in a totally original twist.
I’m giving this list article thing a whirl, so if you liked this and want to see more of these, let me know!