Serialised Storytelling: the Final Frontier

Remember Star Trek’s hayday? The show has had a few of them, depending on who you ask. Plenty of purists won’t accept anything later than the 60s; some think The Next Generation distilled all of the franchise’s noblest impulses; and there’s an argument to be made for Deep Space Nine’s hesitant step away from the universe’s Utopian roots – and towards a focus on series-long arcs – as the high point. (There’s no justifying Voyager)

Star Trek’s various TV incarnations almost managed to span 40 years, but the biggest changes to the TV landscape came in the final decade. To watch Deep Space Nine or Enterprise now is to watch the biggest shift in the history of a medium – the move from episodic to serialised TV.

As the number of options for catching up with missed episodes grew, so did the tactic of stringing out stories, ideas and character development over several episodes. As the franchise ended just as the golden age of TV hit its stride through The Sopranos, eventually the idea of television telling stories across several series with a set end point essentially became standard practice.

As more details have trickled out about Star Trek’s upcoming return to the small screen, it has been tough to picture what a good Star Trek show would look like nowadays, even as the era of peak TV made it inevitable that someone would try. Because not even Deep Space Nine’s most joined up storytelling is really comparable to the hyper-intertwined fare that has become pretty much the standard.

TrekDS9

Coming off of Hannibal – a show that tried and nobly failed to retell every beat from every one of the titular cannibal’s original books during its run – showrunner Bryan Fuller has been handed Star Trek Discovery. It is fair to guess that he will drag the series into the strange new world of full-on serialisation.

But the exact form of that serialisation – and what form it should even be aiming for – is tougher to pin down. So looking around today’s TV landscape, what are the options?

A double helping of serial

How about surrendering to the irresistible force of serialised storytelling? It worked for The Wire, right?

As HBO grew into the new world order it had itself created at the end of the 90s, it started producing shows that were more than the sum of their episodes. The most obvious inheritors of hyper-serialisation are Game of Thrones – so big picture obsessed that its opening credits are literally a camera panning around that big picture – and The Wire.

Watching those first few episodes of The Wire is almost inevitably going to feel like a let-down after a decade of hype, but that is largely because of most of the show’s strengths come from a cumulative power that doesn’t really get going until well into its first season. The way every change of focus and every plot point relentlessly sticks to the same overarching themes is what make The Wire remarkable, and that is only possible within the timeframes TV now allows.

When Netflix started to take over a lot of the cultural conversation around original programming, and soon became synonymous with binge watching, it was never likely to resist this form of storytelling. Breezing through a season over the weekend lends itself to longer form plotting and forgives weaker structure within individual episodes.

TrekSense8

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 incorporated that into the heart of its themes. Flowing effortlessly from character to character across a dreamy global landscape while making its plaintive point that everyone is connected, it wove plots and themes across episodes in patterns that can fall apart on a one-episode-per-week schedule. Not content with that muddled triumph, this year’s third season of Netflix’s alternately ramshackle and delicately structured BoJack Horseman went as far as positioning the cut between two episodes in the middle of a single word.

It is possible to have that kind of fun and ambition by hacking away at the boundaries of serialisation, but the slower paced episode by episode watch tends to naturally suffer as a result. The biggest new productions have gone so far down the serialised route that some slower paced shows are starting to seem outdated and unfashionable.

Short stories

Few programmes of the 21st century were slower paced than Mad Men. So many of its themes and characters were so invested in going around in circles over and over again that a faster paced plot would only have made for a duller, more repetitive show.

Instead, it gripped attention by offering another fully fleshed out story every week, and for the most part let its characters, their relationships and their overall mindsets and positions be what changed over the longer term. Mad Men could be plugged into on a few separate levels every episode. That allowed it to pull The Wire’s trick of accumulated emotion while offering surprisingly zippy episodic plots which sometimes had the feel of a heist movie, other times borrowed tones from unexpected places like Stanley Kubrick films, and always had the potential to surprise on their own merits.

TrekMadMen

For a while Mad Men’s channel AMC, maybe by virtue of being a good old fashioned US cable station, seemed like the home of this form of short story plotting – it did the same thing around the same time with Breaking Bad. It hardly seemed like a slow paced or delicately serialised show, given that it hung on a single character’s arc across its whole series, but in reality it was fuelled by clever episodic ideas over and over again. From the early episodes which presented individual issues to be solved or dark pits of immortality to be jumped into, yes the real original hook in Breaking Bad may have been the dark descent of its lead, but what kept everyone around – and shockingly enough led to an increase of popularity several years in – was the thrill of each individual episode.

This was the level the best of Deep Space Nine aspired to before later shows perfected it. An interesting thing about later Star Trek TV series is that its serialisation was blocky and awkward in many ways, even when it worked. Deep Space Nine would make decisions that seem crazy today – it would drop a completely stakes-free episode right into the climactic stages of its biggest arcs, having everyone play baseball and forget about the war of attrition going on outside; it would line up a set of half a dozen episodes right at the end of its season after having ignored the serialised plots set up way back at the season opener; essentially it would try to have the best of both worlds.

The balancing act

Deep Space Nine wouldn’t be the last to try to have it all, and the success of some shows offers a blueprint for how a new Star Trek programme could finish the job it started.

Also made during the awkward baby steps of serialisation, The Sopranos itself might be the most obvious example. Its earliest successes were a few deeply self-contained episodes, particularly ‘College’ and ‘Pine Barrens’, two stories that were only about themselves and their characters. In the latter case, fans were convinced one unresolved plot point would come back in a big way even years afterwards, and that simply never happened. Like Deep Space Nine, The Sopranos was untested and had its share of unsuccessful experiments, but it eventually mastered its form of storytelling to the extent that now, as serialisation increasingly takes over, some showrunners are inevitably looking back to it as a way to pull back from the brink.

The Americans is the modern show that best captures The Sopranos’ spirit. Its protagonists, a pair of thoroughly Americanised sleeper agents sent by the KGB to suburban America, have a violent, illegal life that presents the writers with a constantly revving story engine from which they can produce spy-drama-of-the-week plots, but its characters also have a complex family life (understandably enough) that manages to be equally interesting but very differently paced.

TrekAmericans

Every Star Trek series is ultimately about relationships – or at least they rise and fall on the success of them. What better place to start a new Star Trek story than by drawing on the ridiculously action-packed yet family focused lives that have powered two of the best fusions of serialised and episodic storytelling?

Star Trek at its best has some big ideas and themes to get across, and seemingly considers it a responsibility to do so in an accessible way. This far into the 21st century’s experiments with TV’s structure, the latest incarnation of the franchise’s future utopia has the chance to be something that anyone can jump into, while still telling stories on the bigger canvas that is now the norm.

It is too easy to say that aiming for the middle ground is the key to quality. For one thing, everything from The Americans to The Good Wife show that the middle ground in this case is a wide and varied place to be. But in the case of Star Trek, seeking out new life between the best of both worlds might be exactly how it finds that long promised utopia.