L. Neil Smith's
Number 261, February 29, 2004

Leaping Lizards!

What Ever Happened to TV?
by L. Neil Smith

Exclusive to TLE

I am exactly the same age as broadcast commercial television. So when I say I've seen it all, that's almost literally true. I've been watching TV from the days when you were stuck with whatever was on the one channel most people could get wherever they lived, to a time when you could choose from 500 channels and there still wasn't anything to watch.

One reason I don't currently have cable.

Over the years, there have usually been enough programs that gave me pleasure, especially during the last couple of decades when science fiction and adult fantasy came into their own — I'm a science fiction writer myself, after all, and regard my field as the last "literature of ideas". Even two years ago, I could generally find something to amuse me, sometimes even a couple of somethings, on every night of the week.

And then it all began to dry up and blow away. One by one, the programs I liked were cancelled, ran their natural courses, or just otherwise evaporated, to be replaced by ... well, I'll get to that later.

What have I liked that has been taken away? Well, it's just been announced that Angel is finishing its last season. This program, a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer concerns a 200-year-old vampire who's been "cursed" with a soul. With his band of friends, he battles various demons, other vampires, and the great grandmother of evil law firms.

I liked Babylon 5 very much, but it was designed from the outset to tell a sweeping story, then to go away after five years. It was about people on a five-mile-long O'Neill habitat locked in mortal conflict with a corrupt Earth government and entities a million years old.

I never got to see Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers or Babylon 5: Crusade; these spinoffs were cancelled before I ever heard about them.

Brimstone, a series that my wife still goes into raptures over, thanks largely to actor John Glover, concerned a police detective who dies and spends fifteen years in hell, because he killed the fiend who raped his wife, before the devil himself (portrayed with delightful villainy by Glover) decides to send him back to Earth to recapture 113 escapees. He caught a dozen before a vastly more evil force shut him down.

Network executives.

It's hard to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because that program and its characters moved in to live with us for several years. One of the most offbeat ideas for a TV series ever — a high school cheerleader, and a valley girl, at that, is sort of cosmically Chosen to kill vampires — it was funny and sad and witty in a fresh, new way.

Over a quarter of a century, I saw every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager. I enjoyed most of them very much, despite their dumb-ass quasi-military socialism and crappy K-Mart ethics. I had to watch the first series in reruns, because I worked on the nights it was on. But thanks to a good friend, I have VHS tapes of all 79 episodes, plus all 23 of the lesser-known animated series. Centuries from now, I believe firmly that the Star Trek corpus will be seen as a monumental and unique literary accomplishment, hundreds of hours long, and fully comparable with the works of Shakespeare (who also had crappy K-Mart ethics).

Perhaps the saddest loss of all was Firefly, created by Joss Whedon, the mind responsible for Buffy and Angel, but consisting of hard-nosed nuts-and-bolts science fiction, the best ever to appear on television. The military socialists here, quasi- and otherwise, are the badguys, the heroes are libertarian — capitalists and smugglers all, and the characters' struggle for intelligent, coherent ethics is continuous.

The good news is that the series, cancelled by the suicidal idiots at Fox after only thirteen episodes, is about to be made into a movie. It's fondly hoped that this, in turn, will bring the series back to television.

Try UPN this time, Joss.

There are many more praiseworthy series I could describe, but this is going on too long, so I'll mostly just list them: Forever Knight (featuring the original ethical vampire), Haunted, Highlander, (a special favorite of mine, a splendid family saga made both for movies and TV), The Invisible Man, John Doe, Kung Fu: the Legend Continues, Lois and Clark (infinitely better than the WB travesty, Smallville), Millenium, Space Precinct (the most wonderfully goofy TV science fiction ever), Special Unit 2 (runner-up for the award), Strange Luck, Tracker, and last, but very not least, The X-Files

That leaves Enterprise, easily the best of all six Star Trek series. Set 70 or 80 years before the time of James T. Kirk, it has a cast of terrific characters, and concerns the awkward beginnings of StarFleet. No shields, no tractor beams, and everyone is terrified of the transporter. Scott Bakula is great as Captain Archer, and Jeffrey Combs is a special treat as the wiggly-antennaed Andorian commander, Shran.

Oh, yeah: Jolene Blalock.

All of the rest are gone or about to go. What did these programs have in common — aside from the fact that they were science fiction or fantasy? Simply this: each of them portrayed individual heroism as being admirable and efficacious, in a life-and-death (and sometimes life again) struggle between sharply defined good and sharply defined evil.

Also, they've been replaced by the most moronic situation comedies imaginable, by "reality" shows purposely designed to prove that we are all slobbering cretins with the morality of rabid wharf rats (and therefore fit to populate the New World Order being built for us), or by presentations where the "heroes" are statist goons of the same ilk that coldbloodedly murdered two dozen helpless, innocent children at Waco.

Exactly the same ilk.

Maybe it's a conspiracy. I worry about that a little. But maybe the people now living under the thumb of Homeland Security and the USA Patriot Act have simply given up on the wonderful future they used to see ahead of them, a future that's been stolen from them by thieving, murderous parasites like Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and both George Bushes. Maybe they don't believe in progress and a better life for their children anymore, and the TV networks have somehow detected that.

What can you do about it? Do what we do at the Smith hacienda: buy DVDs of the good old programs when you can, watch them, and don't turn on network TV except on Wednesdays to catch (and of course record) Enterprise.

Don't write the networks. They think they know what's good for you better than you do. Write their ten biggest advertisers (we'll figure it out and publish a list), complain to them, tell them you don't watch broadcast TV — or their commercials — anymore, and tell them why.

Be sure and copy the networks.

And The Libertarian Enterprise. We can make a real campaign of it.

Call it an experiment to improve life now, and take the future back.

Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith is the author of 23 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at lneilsmith.org. Autographed copies may be had from the author at lneil@lneilsmith.org.


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