The Line Vanishes

I recently watched episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4, The Expanse season 6, Foundation, and Apple TV’s Invasion back to back in a rare binge session. The day before that, I’d watched the new Dune because it had finally been released for download.

Because they were all so fresh in my mind, afterwards I couldn’t help but compare them – and what I found were more similarities than differences. Not in story, but in quality.

Dune, it has to be said, was awesome. Granted, I’d been waiting for it for what felt like years so I was primed to watch it, but often expectation and anticipation can lead to disappointment. In the case of this new version of Dune, it did not.

The story is not the cheeriest, and you could even describe it as bleak – but Frank Herbert’s masterpiece was never intended to be light. Despite that, every bit of Denis Villeneuve’s take on the book has been executed beautifully. The casting and acting were wonderful, the effects as stunning as you would expect from a major motion picture, the sets as phenomenal as the source material deserved (and most were practical, not CGI), and the adaptation was as true to the original as possible with some understandable and smart gender swaps that worked.

DUNE, 2021, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

But this isn’t a site about movies, so I won’t waffle on about Dune too much, however watching that film and those four episodes of high-end sci-fi TV close together left me thinking that the line between major motion pictures and quality science fiction television is now gone.

Star Trek: Discovery and Foundation, in particular, are visual feasts. The effects work and overall design for both are feature-film quality, as is the acting, directing and writing.

Foundation is, in one word (granted, a hyphenated word), breath-taking. It’s so damn beautiful that when I watch some of the set-piece scenes it feels like I’m falling into the television screen. Reality, just for a moment, disappears around the edges of the TV and I’m swallowed by the visuals.

Star Trek: Discovery has, for all its ups and downs, always delivered when it comes to production quality. It’s respectfully taken Gene Roddenberry’s original concept and wrapped an amazing, often stunning design aesthetic around it, to help it compete in this new age of television. I know some people don’t love it, but there’s also a lot who, like me, really admire and respect what Alex Kurtzman and his team have done. Every season has been visually stunning, and that’s been matched with excellent acting, lush sets, and some amazing writing and exciting directing.

Asimov’s FOUNDATION, Apple TV
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, CBS Paramount

Invasion is a little more intimate than the sprawling, galaxy encompassing stories of Foundation and Star Trek, but it’s no less a wonderful series that has been really well handled. I haven’t clicked with more than two of the characters in this often very sombre and humourless show, but the performances have been impressive – especially those of Golshifteh Farahani as Aneesha Malik, Shiolo Kutsuna as Mitsuki Yamato, and young Billy Barratt as Casper Morrow. And the bad guys? LOVE THEM! They feel like one of the more original alien creatures to ever appear on television (or in film).

The Expanse?

Well. What can anyone say about that show, other than it is a masterpiece.

I’m going to take an educated guess snd say it no doubt has the smallest budget of the four series I’ve mentioned, but what it does with that budget is incredible.

For me, though, it’s not about the PDC combat sequences and the hyper-realistic depictions of life in space. It’s about the story and the acting.

The Expanse is an exceptional show in every aspect.

INVASION, Apple TV
THE EXPANSE, Amazon Prime

For me, there are times when I’m watching a major motion picture and I’m no where near as impressed with it as I am with any of the series’ I’m following – especially one of the four I’ve mentioned above. A lot of films these days lack balance and tend to go for major action sequences and supposedly clever one-liners, over over great characters and storyline’s that deeply resonate. Take The Tomorrow War and Army of the Dead. Both movies had actors I love in them, but I still haven’t been able to watch either to their conclusion because they’re cliche trash that don’t even try to do something new with the tried and true formulas they’re using. It can’t ever only be about the special effects.

Maybe it’s the fact that we get to develop more of a relationship with the characters in a series than we do with those in a movie, and that draws us more deeply into the story being told, which in turn enhances every part of the show we’re enjoying?

Maybe many TV shows really are just mini-movies released weekly (or in a clump), as their creatives often state, and we’ve gotten spoiled?

There was a time when there was an obvious difference between movies and TV and you expected one to be better than the other. Sometimes, on TV, the acting wasn’t that great, the sets weren’t that impressive, and the effects were noticeably less than convincing. That all changed (for genre TV at least) with Star Trek: The Next Generation – to the extent some of their special effects were created by studios like George Lucas’s ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), and were feature quality. Likewise, TNGs sets were immersive and gorgeous. Their true secret weapon, though, was in the writing and particularly the acting – thanks to Patrick Stewart (or, if you prefer, Sir Patrick Stewart).

Star Trek and many other science fiction television series have often received awards for their innovative visual effects, incredible soundscapes, beautiful make-up work, and even their otherworldly costumes, but they’ve rarely been awarded for story, acting or directing. Which really puzzles me. Okay… frustrates the crap out of me!

Back in the 80s and 90s you could almost forgive it, because science fiction was still seen by mainstream audiences as something for children. It wasn’t, and never was (and I’ve always found that exasperating and insulting), but people were misinformed and sci-fi wasn’t as easy to access.

Now, though, and especially since shows like Moore and Eick’s Battlestar Galactica took science fiction to new heights, the absence of science fiction actors, writers and directors from award shows like the Emmys and the Golden Globes is an astounding oversight.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, SyFy Channel

Have the people who make the decisions at these awards shows never watched Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery? She kicks the ball out of the park episode after episode! She’s remarkable.

Perhaps they missed Dominique Tipper’s performance throughout season 5 of The Expanse? She was a revelation, and delivered some of the best acting seen on television or silver screen.

And let’s not forget Sir Pat, who has never been anything but exceptional in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and the more recent Star Trek: Picard.

Modern science fiction television has, consistently, had truly impressive casts deserving of accolades, but there are always standouts:

Battlestar Galactica? Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, James Callis and Katee Sackoff.

Babylon 5? Mira Furlan, Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas.

Star Trek? William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Patrick Stewart, LeVar Burton, Avery Brooks, Rene Auberjonois, Armin Shimerman, Nana Visitor, Kate Mulgrew, Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh, Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck, Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd and Santiago Cabrera.

The Expanse? Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cara Gee, Thomas Jane, Shawn Doyle, Jared Harris, Chad L. Coleman and Nadine Nicole.

Lost in Space? Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Maxwell Jenkins, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Ignacio Serricchio and the always outstanding Parker Posey.

The list goes on, and to simply overlook these actors is almost criminal.

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, CBS Paramount (cast photo, end of ALL GOOD THINGS)
STAR TREK: PICARD, CBS Paramount and Amazon Prime
Dominique Tipper as Naomi in season 5 of THE EXPANSE, Amazon Prime

Putting aside the acting, these shows and many other sci-fi series stomp all over most television offerings. I think we’ve all seen sets on science fiction shows that rival those of major motion pictures – and the makeup effects in series like Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, as well as Star Wars: The Mandalorian or Star Wars: The Book of Boba Fett are inspired.

I don’t know what the politics are with the Emmys or the Golden Globes, but something has to change. Perhaps the fault rests with the studio’s who own these shows and their inability to properly promote their productions? The universe knows that SyFy Channel and Amazon Prime have really dropped the ball over the years with promoting The Expanse. Whatever the reason is, we as an audience need to advocate more for the shows that we love and are inspired by to be included in a wider choice of award nominations. Shows that have to essentially create an entire new world for their stories to live in, and are unable to depend on 21st Century locales and props, that then cast excellent actors and recruit amazing production people, deserves better. Is The Good Wife actually good? Yes. But it already has a jump start on anything set in the future, or in some imagined distant past like the wonderful Wheel of Time.

The directorial work of Olatunde Osunsanmi (though that guy seriously makes me feel dizzy now and again) and Jonathan Frakes, and the writing abilities of people like Frank Abetemarco (‘Chain of Command,’ STTNG) and Melinda M. Snodgrass (‘Measure of a Man,’ STTNG), as quick examples, should be – and deserve to be – recognised.

J. Michael Straczynski should have won an Emmy four years running for his work on Babylon 5 seasons 1-4, and Ronald D. Moore had some stellar TNG episodes and some incredible BSG ones.

Perhaps the line has now blurred to the point where some of these shows even deserve to be recognised at the Academy Awards level.

Many of them truly are cinematic in every respect.

Televised science fiction, whether on a network or a streaming platform, has come of age and I for one am grateful for it.

Now, the industry itself needs to realise that.

We need the people holding the votes at these major awards ceremonies to come to terms with this, and shower modern science fiction actors, writers, directors and designers, with the love they deserve.

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