This is the Summer of Fiscal Responsibility. Congress prompted a sovereign credit downgrade because of it, and at least two professional sports leagues ground to a halt in its name. Earlier this week, the geek community got official word that balancing the Almighty Dollar was the cause of death for a quality science fiction show, Eureka.
Syfy confirmed that the quirky show about lovable sheriff and a town filled with geniuses was going to complete its current 13-episode run and then call it quits in 2012. The official statement called it a “difficult business decision” not to renew, but promised that the series arcs will be allowed to conclude. In addition to to a holiday episode in December, Eureka will close out their run with 12 final episodes in 2012. Geek icon Wil Wheaton — who had a recurring role as a foil to fellow nerd Douglas Fargo — posted a quote from executive producer Amy Berg indicating that the creative interest in the show was overcome by the bottom line.
While most can appreciate or even laud the network’s, and its parent company NBCUniversal’s, grounded sense of accounting, the announcement just adds negativity to the new rebranding of the channel as a place where good shows go to get frakked.
Resisting Science Fiction
The parentage of the channel in the early 1990s include both horror and science fiction. Initially, Paramount and Universal used Sci-Fi as a conduit for classic series, like Night Gallery and Star Trek. These genres remain the roots of Syfy programming despite a decade of corporate baton passing that handed the channel to NBC Universal in 2004. Executives have resisted this tradition almost from the beginning, and that is why professional wrestling and reality programming are fixtures in the regular schedule.
Cancelations are as much a part of the the SyFy identity as alien abductions and cylons. Since the Sci-Fi Channel rebranded two years ago, suits have kicked a number of quality science fiction shows to the curb. Fans of Caprica and Stargate Universe lamented the lack of support as Syfy strengthened their commitment to the WWE. Prior to that, the network shocked many fans and critics in 2002 by dumping Farscape, a move that some say will be forever associated with NBC’s premature plug-pulling of the original Star Trek series four decades earlier. Similarly, The Dresden Files, with a literary following and an appealing performance by lead Paul Blackthorne, bit the dust in 2007 after one season. The network eventually cited poor ratings despite evidence to the contrary. Losing Eureka just adds to this legacy.
As he told io9 in July 2009, Syfy Creative Director (now President) of Original Programming Mark Stern — who says canceling the popular Farscape on his first day wasn’t his decision — claimed the rebranding was going to have a counter-intuitive effect of increasing the science fiction programming:
I think our big frustration with a show like Battlestar Galactica has been, it’s a great show. Because it’s on the science fiction channel it’s kept people away, that we felt like would come in and love that show. So it’s made us a little more hesitant about going too hard scifi. Because hard scifi on the scifi channel is almost like this double whammy. Now that we have a brand that is a little broader and we’re embracing a lot of things we’re already doing. I think it also gives us a lot of freedom to do more hard scifi.
At the time, Syfy execs were talking about reboots of classic shows like Alien Nation and Quantum Leap, and a search for the “next great space opera.” One possibility for the latter may be replacing Battlestar Galactica with … Battlestar Galactica, albeit in a different time period.
Without Eureka, however, Syfy is down to just two original shows — Warehouse 13 and Alphas — that speak directly to what should be their core demographic.
It won’t happen. The inevitable response by fans will follow a predictable pattern: Many lament, angry emails are written, people are called, and the execs weather the storm knowing there’s a market for the DVDs. Assuming Syfy lives up to their pledge to air the remaining episodes, the fate of the show is already better than most canceled projects since there will be some closure. Short of a government bailout for Global Dynamics, it is best to move quickly past anger, bargaining, and depression to acceptance.
However, since we’re talking science fiction, let’s imagine greater and pretend we live in an alternate universe where the input of viewers is heard. Here are five moves Syfy can make to improve their product:
1. Schedule Consistency
Erratic scheduling has likely been a cause of ratings dips of some of the shows. Farscape had mid-season hiatuses that would last up to a six months. Season Three took over a year to finish airing. Eureka hasn’t been erratic, just short. The series’ annual Q3 run is far shorter than traditional 20-24 episode blocks, making it difficult for fans to stick with the show from season to season. Tivo has helped mitigate the Joss Whedon-esque curse of changing time slots, but it can’t do anything about lost interest in a show that doesn’t air new episodes.
2. Give Colin Ferguson Work
The most painful aspect of losing Eureka is parting ways with Sheriff Jack Carter. When the writers shifted focus to the technology being produced by GD and away from his fish-out-of-water relationship with the town (maybe dog-in-the-ocean is a better analogy), it was a disservice to the show. Sure, Carter does his Give Me the Quantum Physics For Dummies Version kind of comments during the tech exposition, but the show’s first-season premise seemed to take a backseat to nanobots and predictive contact lenses. Ferguson turns out to be a great comedic actor and someone deserving another gig. Immediately. If we must live in a world without Eureka, Oregon, at least appease fans by giving Ferguson another vehicle.
3. Evolve the In-Plot Advertising
Speaking of vehicles … Product placement has been a part of the entertainment industry for even longer thanx this Snickers I just ate will satisfy my hunger. Sometimes it is obvious: Jack Bauer drives a Ford; the villains do not. Sometimes, it is really obvious, like when the cast of White Collar openly marvels at the hands-free dialing of a Taurus — recent cliffhanger aside, the main purpose of the Burke marriage seems to be testing standard features for the auto industry. Eureka‘s Subaru episode (“If You Build It…“) was one of the worst offenders, with Fargo spouting car statistics. We respect the need for the ad revenue and admire the innovation of including commercials in the plot, but viewers need an X-Men leap forward in the evolution of product placement. Give writers more incentive and leeway to shill for the commercial sugar daddies without sacrificing narrative. What you are doing now makes me hate Subaru, not buy one.
4. Downgrade the FX
The reason cited for axing Eureka is that the show was too expensive to produce, due mainly to the town being a hub for technology we don’t have in the real world. Couple that with the writers’ focus on that tech, and it is easy to see why the show became unsustainable. Take a lesson from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and show the cool-but-expensive morphing of Odo into living puddles of ooze sparingly. Better yet, take a lesson from the Tom Baker Doctor Who and concentrate on the storytelling, not the bling. I’ve seen better special effects in some middle school plays than on the BBC in the 1970s, yet I wouldn’t miss a Sunday night watching the Doctor battle some face-painted alien race. Like movie sex in the 1940s and 1950s, a little suggestion goes a long way. Humans are capable of extrapolating.