Saturday, 28 June 2014

Farscape is Better Than New Who by Thaddeus White

My guest blogger for today is writer, Thaddeus White. I absolutely adore Farscape, and Thad does too.


This blog contains minor spoilers about Farscape and major spoilers about past episodes of Doctor Who.

Pick's a freeview channel (11) in the UK which has shown quite a lot of good sci-fi, and I've been catching up with Farscape (7pm, weekdays).

I did watch it when it initially came out, but missed the start, so I saw that for the first time on Pick. Memories can easily be rose-tinted, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Farscape was even better than I remembered.

The tension between the disjointed crew works well, the monster of the week and longer plot arcs are very well-balanced, and the storylines are coherent and actually make sense.

I was watching one of the first few episodes, and was actually surprised when the plot was coherent. No inexplicable rescue from danger, no technobabble poorly trying to hide a plot hole, just good quality writing and a storyline that holds together.

But why the surprise? Partly because one of my overriding memories of Farscape was how crazy it could be, but also, I think, because much of the most recent sci-fi I'd seen had been new episodes of Doctor Who (New Who).

Doctor Who started in 1963, and had a prolonged interval between the end of the original run (with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor) and the start of New Who (with Christopher Eccleston). Resurrecting the series had certain challenges, but also lots of advantages (a ready made viewership ready to get drunk on nostalgia and a huge body of lore being the most obvious).

Certain episodes (Blink, the two-parter introducing the Silence) have been excellent, but some have been bloody awful (typically, season finales). On the whole, I think Farscape's the better. And not by a small margin.

Consider the best parts of New Who. The Weeping Angels and the Silence are new creatures, unburdened by past lore or what the writers (themselves fans of Old Who) feel could be an 'interesting' interpretation of something old.

But when the episodes do focus on old favourites (particularly the Master and Davros), the inexplicable lack of understanding from the writing team has led to characters that share a name and little else with their Old Who counterparts. The Master was a violent, brilliant, self-confident chap, the Doctor's equal in cunning. And how does he 'get revenge' on the Doctor after he thwarted the Master's plan in New Who? He refused to regenerate, thereby (apparently) killing himself and making the Doctor cry. Fearsome.

pic by Simon Howden
After Davros was introduced in Genesis of the Daleks (which remains the best Doctor Who story and which I highly recommend) he was the focus of just about every dalek-related story afterwards. The running theme was his effort to gain control over his creations, and their desire to either kill or capture him, to use for their own ends. This wasn't a one or two adventure thing, it lasted almost two decades. Yet when Davros was (for the only time so far) brought back in New Who he had 'reached an arrangement' with a Supreme Dalek, which left him stuck in a vault as a prisoner doing the daleks' bidding. As well as being rubbish in itself (why not just have Davros in charge?), it was also diametrically opposed to everything Davros had done before.

Another problem with New Who is the sonic screwdriver, (the handheld plot resolution device). It opens doors, it fixes machinery, it assembles cabinets (allegedly, we haven't actually seen it do that, I think). It was used now and then in Old Who, but has become really overused with the new series.

Farscape doesn't have 30 years of history to draw on: and that's a bloody good thing. Yes, there are no inside jokes about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, but there's also no hero-worship of the protagonist. And because there are no 'old favourites' there's no danger of them being screwed up. Like the Weeping Angels and the Silence, the Peacekeepers, Scarrens and Nebari are all new, giving the writers no baggage to try and handle, and freedom to do whatever they like.

Then there are the plot arcs and monster of the week issues. A monster of the week approach means each episode is self-contained with a storyline that is entirely begun and resolved in that singular episode. Having that approach makes it easier for new viewers to get into a series, but longer plot arcs enable a deeper world, better characterisation and are more rewarding for longer term viewers.

Farscape handles this extremely well. The Look At The Princess three-parter was a great example. Scorpius, the main antagonist for much of the show, makes an appearance but it's very much as as a secondary character for those three episodes. Instead, the focus is on the political intrigue of an independent third party which is being courted by the rival Peacekeeper and Scarran empires, and is undergoing a tussle over the succession. Any newcomer to the series would entirely understand the three-parter, and a longer term viewer would appreciate the greater depth revealed about Scorpius and the Scarrans.

Contrast that to the plot arcs in New Who. The Bad Wolf was deus ex TARDIS (akin to finding a magic Reset button in the TARDIS), and the three-parter with the Master made no bloody sense (and the antagonist's character was completely contrary to what had gone before). I did enjoy the daleks versus cybermen, however.

I hope New Who can improve. A bit less ADHD and screwdriver-waving and a bit more coherence would go a long way. The best episodes show that it can be done, so perhaps a shift away from old favourites would help enhance their impact when they do appear, and avoid hero-worship and strangely detrimental nostalgia.

Incidentally, there is to be a new Farscape film. There are rumours, if it's well-received, a new series could kick off. Hopefully it won't fall into the nostalgia trap of New Who.


No comments:

Post a Comment