Is Modern TV a Case of “Books on the Screen”?

Is it just me or has there been a cosmic shift in television dramas (particularly sci-fi) in the last few years? Have you noticed? Go back over modern television – go back perhaps 30 years and those ongoing sci-fi series tended to be a “monster of the week” type serials. The endless Trek spin- offs, Andromeda, to a certain extent Stargate SG-1, Buffy, Charmed… all of them had a running thread but each week the story would be (with the exception of the occasional two-parter) wrapped up in those 45 minutes.

By Uploaded to Commons by Xeworlebi, self created (Self created, design from the shows intertitle) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Uploaded to Commons by Xeworlebi, self created (Self created, design from the shows intertitle) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There were exceptions of course. Babylon 5 was told like a series of books on a screen with each episode being a “chapter” and not always with a clear end. But it was well ahead of its time and had a bit of a niche audience. A few series tried the format with mixed success, but the new dramas that followed in its wake had little success. Who remembers Odyssey 5? Or Jeremiah? I remember both; loved them and felt it was a real shame they were cancelled.

They did not last long and this format struggled over the following years to get established – mostly because the threat of cancellation always hung over them, any attempt to move toward this format tended to be “one season = one story”, that way a series could feel suitably wrapped up in one year and start a new story the next season.

Then You Came Along and All was Not “Lost”

Lost had an overall story arch and took a big gamble on its presumed success. There was, however, a theme to each season and sometimes a story wrapped up in 45 mins but these were rare, often we were unravelling a story over the course of the year. Lost was undoubtedly the master of the format of the first decade of the new millennium, but it was the exception to the rule. Heroes had a greater focus than Lost on the “one season = one story”. Battlestar Galactica succeeded in using the Babylon 5 format and was arguably a more mainstream series.

Yes girls, it’s Daryl Dixon… stop swooning! source:

It seems now that the biggest series on television follow this “book on screen” format. Perhaps Lost started it, but the masters of the format that others now seek to copy are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones which of course, are both based on books. The former on a series of graphic novels and the latter on a the Songs of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Both are hugely successful. Clearly, they do not follow the “monster of the week” format and feel more like chapters. In The Walking Dead, sometimes very little happens in an individual episode that can be called a story – and consequently they cannot be watched in isolation – but will make sense in the wider context of the plot. I cannot comment whether this is the case with Game of Thrones as I have not seen a single episode.

Under the Dome

Another recent series that is based on a book is Under the Dome about a small rural American town that is inexplicably trapped beneath a large transparent dome. Nobody can get in or out and all communication with the outside has been cut off. Cue massive social experiment a la Lord of the Flies – some of the characters feel the pressure, tensions boil over at the thought of being trapped forever and they are dangerously close to running out of coffee – god forbid anyone cutting an American off from his supply of Joe!

Other Noteworthy Books On Screen

I have lauded The Returned already and for me, it has been the best television event of the last few years, even if season 2 was a little disappointing in places. It is a bit of a hybrid in that each episode of season one gave us background on an individual character. Once more, you cannot watch episodes in isolation because you need to watch them all – and in order – for the story to slowly unravel and make sense. It is this format of television that I find so utterly gripping and keeps me watching week in, week out.

Outside the Speculative Genres

This format is not just being applied to “our” genre either. Scandinavian crime dramas The Bridge and The Killing won over audiences and award givers. Back in the USA, there is Hannibal, a reboot of the early life of Hannibal Lecter and The Cannibal is played excellently by Mads Mikkelsen. Though this does have a “killer of the week” format, there is a backstory slowly being unravelled about the identity of the Chesapeake Ripper. Also, a spin off of psycho with the ever wonderful Freddie Highmore playing the teenage Norman Bates. Once again, the story is told in a chapter by chapter format; the week’s story is not always wrapped up in an episode. More often it is left on a cliffhanger.

Even our Antipodean cousins are getting in on the act. Joint British-New Zealand project Top of the Lake aired on BBC2 and now appears to be coming back for a second season in 2017. Though only a 7 episode mini-series, it too is one story. It follows the police’ search for a missing twelve-year-old girl, a strange commune of middle aged women and some dodgy characters (and their potential complicity) in a small New Zealand mountain town. I have yet to see a synopsis of season 2.

But Why Has This Happened?

I’ve seen this described as a European tradition. and perhaps to a certain degree, that is true. The last ten or fifteen years have seen good quality US series killed in their cradle because they failed to grasp and maintain an audience with this format. With more money available to television in North America, they are far more likely to take a chance and then cancel something that isn’t turning a profit. Whereas with far less funding in Europe, the money will be spent carefully and would be focussed on long-term acquisition and retaining of a core audience.Joseph Michael Straczynski,

Joseph Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, cites European science fiction traditions as being a major influence on his series. This trend is no better shown than in the 1960s and 1970s, Britain led the way with the likes of The Prisoner and Blakes’ 7 (very low budget – often single stories over several years) when the USA was firmly in the grip of Star Trek (bigger budget – more individual episode base) but all successful in their own right.

But why are we here? Why was a format doomed to failure 15-20 years ago now the norm? Did audiences get bored with the “monster/killer/story of the week”? Did we get bored with the superficiality of it all and start to crave something more long term? Did we crave the commitment of Lost? Did Game of Thrones whet the appetite for something to really get our teeth into over months and years such as our favourite book series? Was, in fact, the desire for epics born on the big screen – can we thank the Lord of the Rings film adaptations for this change to TV habits? Most importantly, will we eventually swing back the other way?

The floor is open…


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