More Thoughts about Television and Movies

Back in December, I wrote a bit about intelligent television and why it seems like most intelligent and original shows struggle mightily to attract ratings good enough to keep it on the air. Since then, I’ve encountered some more interesting sources on the topic.

This GQ article takes some stabs at the current state of the movie industry and the troubling trend to simply find a property that is familiar to a key demographic and make a movie of it. This could be anything from a sequel to Saw or an adaptation of Stretch Armstrong. If something is even vaguely marketable and somehow film-able, a studio exec will attempt to produce it. And, strangely enough, the track records show that such films will indeed pull in plenty of money at the box office. It’s a fascinating study. Granted, there is definitely a place for escapism cinema, but can’t we have escapism while still having original stories and ideas? I can easily argue that Inception provided escapism, but also had a cerebral undercurrent that worked my brain muscle a little bit too.

My main problem is that the movie studios seem to be pushing products and spectacle while ignoring storytelling. We recently watched the big-budget adaptation of The A-Team and were left wondering if someone thought up interesting action set-pieces and then tried to tie them together with some semblance of a story. Things just seemed to move from one sequence to the next without any character development or rational plot.

The idea of plot and story-telling competing against the almighty dollar is one that’s been around for decades in the entertainment industry. This is evidenced by the recently unearthed original pitch document that Gene Roddenberry submitted to Desilu Studios for Star Trek back in 1964. Read the pdf by clicking here. Roddenberry spends many pages describing possible plot scenarios for the show, but goes to great lengths to also talk up the cost-effectiveness of this particular show. He says that Star Trek will rely heavily on “parallel worlds”: an old-west planet, a gangster planet, a Greek mythology-based planet, etc. These episodes will be able to take advantage of sets that the studio already has, so there will be no new set-building costs. He even says that perhaps an episode could film on the sets of movies that are being produced at the time, a sort of after-hours rental deal. Once Roddenberry got the green light to produce a pilot, he delivered “The Cage”, which NBC rejected for three reasons: Spock looked like Satan, the first officer was a female and the plot was too cerebral. They didn’t want a hero fighting battles in his mind and winning with smarts, they wanted a fighter. Since they believed the show had promise at it’s core, they requested a re-tooled pilot. Roddenberry kept Spock in, but took the other changes to heart, delivering an episode where a more brash captain wins a fist-fight with a god-like being. It wins studio approval, and the rest is history. Oh, and Roddenberry somewhat-secretly kept the actress who played the original first officer in the cast as the nurse character and then married her.

Star Trek definitely went on to produce it’s fair share of cerebral episodes that tackled topics such as racism, fate and the cold war. But it definitely kept it’s promise of borrowing sets to keep costs down. We saw the same desolate planet set multiple times and plenty of props and costumes lifted from other genre films and shows.

This bring me to The Twilight Zone. I’ve been working my way through the show over the last couple of weeks and have really found fresh enjoyment in it. The pilot episode featured clips of creator Rod Serling‘s original sales pitch to the network, a sort of video counterpart to Roddenberry’s written proposal. In the clips, Serling says that his show will be a writer’s showcase. An opportunity to prominently feature creative writing with an anthology-style show offering something different each week. See the clips here:

So while Star Trek was able to spin Roddenberry’s vision out into almost 50 years of stories and sequels, the Twilight Zone has become something of an anomaly. Reboot attempts (relying heavily on remakes of original series scripts) have failed and anthology shows in general almost never survive today. I think this is a testament to the creative force of Serling himself, but also the original spirit of the show: feature the writing above all else. Not action, not spectacle – writing. I believe that this tenant is incredibly difficult to find in the industry today and that’s a shame, but it makes me value all the more the places where good writing can be found.


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