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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

One of my turns

"But I have grown older and
You have grown colder and
Nothing is very much fun any more.
And I feel one of my turns coming on."

One of my turns, Pink Floyd

This nostalgia thing seems to be afflicting me quite a lot recently. Only last week I was getting all nostalgic for our long-gone local library and the yellow Gollancz dust jackets. This week, over the obligatory few pints of real ale I found myself getting nostalgic about television. It is, we agreed, no longer very much fun.

The program that prompted our musings was Battlestar Galactica. Now there will be some of you who remember the kitsch and rather silly original with Lorne Greene as Commander Adama. There will be some of you who have watched the "re-imagining" that is currently into its fourth season. There will be some of you who, like me, have watched and enjoyed both. It seems unlikely but there may even be some of you who remember the 1980s version with pleasure. (OK, I'll give you that that one is a bit of a stretch – even the show's creator allegedly didn't like that one.)

Anyway we were comparing original with re-imagining. Stacked up together the new one is better produced, slicker, deeper, has more rounded and better developed characters, much better special effects, better acting, better stories and better music. No competition is there? But there is. Neither of us could exactly say why but the original one was fun and the new one, good though it is, isn't. Pete put his finger on it when he said that in ten years time when they are side by side on his shelf of DVDs and he wants to watch something he'll reach for the old one not the new one.

We started to think about other shows, old and new and compare them on the same basis. Obviously few programs have the distinction of two versions that can be compared quite so directly: so we started with the obvious one – Star Trek or as we know it Star Trek: The Franchise That Wouldn't Die. We thought of the various versions: Star Trek, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise. We agreed that while most of them had been good (neither of us cared very much for Enterprise) none of them were half as much fun as the original with Captain Kirk and a lot of very dodgy sets. They all take themselves too seriously.

We wondered if it were only a symptom of Science Fiction but we decided it isn't. We turned instead to crime programs. There is no way on Earth anyone could claim that Starsky and Hutch was better television than, for example, CSI . (Quincy would perhaps have been a more apt comparison, but neither of us had ever seen enough of it to form a judgement.) Starsky and Hutch was pretty slick by the standards of the day but compared to CSI the production values were low, the character development non-existent (more about that in a minute), the plots repetitive. It was also a whole lot more fun than any current cop show. Tacky rubbish but very entertaining tacky rubbish.

Character development in all of these shows was bizarre by modern standards. In any given episode there could be extreme trauma, life-affecting events, experiences that would surely affect a real person for decades. And they were always forgotten by the start of the next episode. There were no knock-on effects visible when you tuned in a week later.

I recently saw an old Starsky and Hutch in which the bad guys (for quite unconvincing reasons) had got Hutch addicted to heroin. He was in a very bad way, but by the end of the episode a couple of days in Huggy Bear's spare bedroom and some hot soup had fixed him up and even the bags under his eyes were gone by the next episode. No lasting effects allowed. Ever.

Compare that to the ongoing traumas in modern shows where everyone is a recovering or lapsed alcoholic, or has deep personal problems, or is a policeman and closet psychopathic killer (unlike everyone else, I really don't rate Dexter.) These themes develop from week to week. Characters change. Actions have consequences. There is the dreaded curse of the arc plot which afflicts almost everything. You can't tell a story in forty five minutes, you have to have a story that lasts forty five weeks and then ends without a resolution when the network cancels the show.

There are of course some modern shows that are quite fun. Monk is an American example, made fun by Tony Shalhoub's terrific central performance, a sharp and amusing script and a great supporting cast. And by having a new story each week with little or no impact on future stories. Apart from the change of lead actress and a change of theme tune (referenced in the plot of one of the stories) you could pretty much watch them in any order and not know the difference.

On British TV we could only think of Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes but even that's a bit of a cheat because it's fun precisely because they deliberately ape the style of the old programs with a large dollop of post-modern self-conscious parody thrown into the blend: but even they have their arc plot.

We couldn't really come up with much else. Then the bar called time and we had to leave but our overriding conclusion was that… well, that nothing is very much fun any more.

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