The Mercury Project Model

That’s the theme tune to Alphas, which I always rather liked, and blog about just over here. It was a fun idea; a group of people with, initially at least, biologically sound naturally evolved abilities brought together by the scientist who helped them deal with those powers to fight crime.

 

And argue a lot.

 

It also formed the third point of what is either a triangle or a square depending on how you view the four original drama series the SyFy channel has had the most success with in recent years; Eureka covered optimistic science fiction, Haven continues to cover the supernatural, Warehouse 13 is Raiders of the Lost Ark relic hunting with added quippery and Alphas was a relatively hard-bitten super cop show. Think of it as the X-Men, but no one’s quite as sure of what side they’re on as Xavier’s kids usually are. Now, Haven’s the questionable one of those four because it’s the only one definitely based on external source material, adapted from the Stephen King novella The Colorado Kid whilst the others were all original creations. However, Alphas, Warehouse 13 and Eureka all take (or took) place in the same universe. Characters from Eureka appeared in Warehouse 13, a character from Warehouse 13 appeared in Alphas and round we go. My learned colleague and two-fisted genius Adam P Knave has figured out exactly how big an opportunity SyFy have lost by cancelling Alphas, which he talks about over on his blog, which is well worth reading.

Adam got me thinking, and that led me to the death list of shows across the last decade. Eureka at least made it to six seasons, but Firefly, Stargate Universe, FlashForward, The Event, Alphas and the rest weren’t so lucky. Even Eureka was brought into land earlier than anticipated and earlier than was initially announced. In each case, these cancellations put people out of jobs, hurt fans but mean the studio saves money. That’s not only a short term goal it’s a primary one, locked as US networks seem to be into the never ending triage of never mind the quality feel the new, but it does nothing in the long run but erode good will.

The SyFy channel fall victim to this over and over again, largely because their scheduling choices seem targeted to annoy the geek crowd that they also seem to court. Now some of that is the basic misanthropy that geek sub culture hugs tighter than a Cat Bus plushie, but the rest of it is because time and time again, the SyFy channel, a channel that by definition should be a haven (And tell me we aren’t all watching the life signs on THAT show at this point) for geek culture is consistently cutting it off. What’s worse is that they’re doing it for the one reason no business will ever turn down;  money, and how to save it. It’s rock solid business sense which means it’s always going to be part of their decision making architecture. The only problem is, now they’re at the point where the possibility of a sizable audience group not bothering with a show for fear of it being canceled is becoming a realistic possibility.  The only other option is the one viewers always have come pilot season; emotionally invest in new shows all over again, knowing that the bruises from the last bout of cancellations have just healed and knowing, too, that new ones will soon bloom in the same places. It’s not a healthy cycle and clearly not a sustainable one. The network cannot and will not change, the audience are already being asked to change so where’s the solution?

Embrace the horror.

Write one season shows.

Everybody wins.

The audience wins because they get a beginning a middle and an end. The writers, and God help screenwriters, folks, it’s a gig I’ve bounced off and even at my bush league level it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, ultimately win because they get to finish something and the network wins because it has a set investment with a built in audience, that ties up finite resources and the boxed set won’t have the usual faintly embarrassed ‘INCLUDES EPISODES NEVER SEEN ON TV!’ sticker on it when the show’s done. It’s a near perfect solution, and it’s one that the SyFy channel, winner of the ‘Network most desperately in need of throwing its regular viewers a bone’ award several years running, are going for. Hopefully.

Helix is a 13-part series set at an Arctic research post beset by a strange viral outbreak. . It’s scripted by Cameron Porsandeh and Ron Moore, pictured above, is producing it. As a 13-episode full season order up front, instead of the usual ‘Pilot plus 6-8 episodes with maybe some more if we like it’ bullshit that US TV has lived off for years. Moore’s an appropriate choice too; not only the showrunner on SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica remake but also the producer of two of the most interesting and least lucky shows of recent years. 17th Precinct was a supernatural cop show that reunited several Galactica cast members whilst Virtuality was a fantastic idea, based around a reality TV show following the first crew out of the solar system and the strange, secondary mission that seemed to be rising up under them. 17th Precinct was never picked up, Virtuality was edited to death, because heaven forbid a happy gay couple should be on US TV, and never made it to series. Moore is, in short, a slugger. A man who has no problem fighting for what he wants and who crisis manages like a fiend. He’s also, thanks to Galactica, got real kudos and weight with the SyFy channel. He’s a known quantity running a known quantity, a safe pair of hands on a minimum risk venture. Put that way you can see why they’re close to signing off.

Three acts. One season.  Straight up. Straight. The Mercury project flight trajectory school of TV drama.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop the story being continued, I would imagine, past the first 13, but that first season has a beginning, a middle and an end, locked in. Which means, as I said above, everyone wins. And, as I said above, this is one of those situations where everyone needs to.

 

There’s still a long way to go, after all, this is television, but quietly, this may be the start of something revolutionary for US television. The original version of The Killing enjoyed tremendous success with the model, as did similar euro-noir The Bridge and that’s already being remade for the UK as The Tunnel, set in the Channel Tunnel but with the format largely intact.  If Helix is commissioned, and takes off, you could see the same techniques used in US TV, providing not just financial and reputational security for the networks but a much needed shot in the arm for the narrative form itself. Given that Helix is a show about a disease, I can’t help but find that oddly appropriate.

(With thanks to Adampknave for the initial blog and Sandchigger for not only pointing out my single error, but commending me for this solution being ‘Be More British About It!’)

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