Time to Throw Down the Gauntlet

There’s a scene in the Hollywood movie, The Heist, where Gene Hackman’s character explains his process is to imagine what someone smarter than he would do…and then he does that. It struck me as a cute line, because even as it initially sounds absurd…there’s also something behind it. (Though there’s an irony to The Heist in that I don’t recall it as that great a movie — indeed, while watching it, with its distinctive, rapid-fire, snappy dialogue, someone turned to me and said: “this comes across as someone doing a bad imitation of David Mamet” — the joke? It was written by Mamet! Anyhoo…)

But, y’know, maybe there’s something to be said for envisioning a goal, even one you think is beyond you — and then reaching for it. That maybe we can all do better if we step outside ourselves a bit. In, as Hackman’s character said, imagining what someone smarter than yourself would do…and then doing that. Y’know, writing a first draft script and then doing a rewrite by saying: “Now if this was a Hitchcock film, how would this scene unfold…?”

In the Canadian movie Grey Owl there was the line: “A man becomes what he dreams.”

When U.S. president John F. Kennedy famously declared NASA would land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, no one was more surprised than the NASA personnel themselves who had no plans to even attempt such a thing, and certainly had never sent Kennedy any memos promising such. But once Kennedy had publicly made that vow — and more, once he was assassinated and became a public martyr — NASA knuckled down and decided to try and fulfil his pie-in-the-sky prophecy. And within the decade, Neil Armstrong was setting a boot down on the moon.

A couple of decades before, the concept of an Atom bomb was barely more than a pulp magazine fantasy when the Manhattan Project was established and scientists were gathered and told: “make it happen.” And within a couple of years, a working nuclear bomb was completed.

In those cases, people didn’t say: “this can be done, so let’s do it” so much as they said: “this is going to be done…we just have to figure out how.”

(I’ve often wondered what could be accomplished in the realms of medicine and science if the same kind of determination and resources that were applied to the Manhattan Project were applied to diseases or ailments. If instead of scientists working in various small groupings, everyone determined to be the king of their own fiefdom, the holder of their own patent, they were instead gathered together into one compound and told: “Get it done.”)

All of which are rather portentous things to reference in a post dealing with nothing more profound than…movies and TV.

But I was thinking about this recently seeing a banner announcing how the Canadian science fiction TV station, Space, was celebrating its 15th anniversary on the air. Fifteen years! Whoohoo! Break out the party hats! Space which, at least at one point, was bragging about how it had the highest overall ratings of almost any specialty channel — in other words, Space was a success! And here we are after fifteen years…

..and what have we got to show for it?

What has Space contributed to the cultural landscape, and especially the Canadian cultural landscape? What is its legacy so far? If a programmer at Space were to write his memoirs, what would he highlight as the thing of which he (or she) is most proud? When sitting around the dinner table, and his (or her) kids say: “Gee…what’d you do today at the office?”, what would he (or she) proudly tell ’em?

“We air more hours of Dr. Who than any other station in Canada?”

“We import more hours of SF-themed American reality TV than anyone else north of the 49th?”

Now, obviously, it all depends upon what you focus. The very fact that Space has endured for 15 years and boasts strong ratings for a cable channel is certainly enough to keep the shareholders wallowing in the paper stuff.

But what about pop culture?

As should be obvious by now after all my posts, I tend to focus on the “big picture”. Making money for yourself, or your investors, is only half the battle — the other half is what have you done to enrich the rest of us, culturally, entertainmentally (um, if there is such a word). Going back to JFK, he once famously told voters: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Space has offered up a few Canadian TV series — a very few, a very, very, very few. And, again, there’s that whole cultural legacy thing. Sanctuary was an all-Canadian series…that, nonetheless, worked very hard to pretend it wasn’t Canadian (the series was ostensibly set in the U.S., the characters were mainly American, headed by a British heroine). It wasn’t Canadian in the way Star Trek was American, or Dr. Who is British. That particular chair is still left vacant. Then there’s the North American version of Being Human — a series I like but, again, pretends it’s American.

When I think about it, I’m actually appalled at how few offerings Space has made over the years (given their claims to how successful the station is). Other Canadian “genre” series that come to mind, like Lost Girl and Continuum…are on Showcase, not Space (and of them, The Lost Girl tends to not say where it’s set, while Continuum admits it’s Vancouver…but seems kind of uncomfortable with it. Certainly it doesn’t seem as nonchalant in its skin about its Canadianness the way American or British series are comfortable in their skins).

And now consider, if you will, movies and mini-series.

After 15-freakin’-years…what has Space got to show for itself, to say: we were here? What great spectacle of science fiction (or fantasy) does it hold up as its contribution to the pop culture? Most of Space’s Canadian-made TV movies and mini-series are co-productions with the American Sy-Fy channel (that’s even assuming Space is a co-producing partner!) and are deliberately B-grade shlockfilms (more horror than SF) that aren’t meant to be remembered two minutes after the credits roll…let alone two years, or two decades. Movies usually starring an American actor or two…and always set in the United States. Hardly jockeying to make a top ten list of great Canadian science fiction and fantasy films! (I delve into this more here — “No One Deliberately Makes Bad Movies…Do They?”)

And bear in mind, I’m not saying Space keeps trying, and failing — perpetually building castles in a swamp (that’s a Monty Python reference if you didn’t get it). It’s not like every TV season they offer up one or two worthy efforts that, sadly, suck: star spanning adventures of a plucky crew aboard a Canadian starship, or time travel dilemmas involving someone going back in time to save D’Arcy McGee. After all, there can be a nobility in trying and failing. But no — my point is, Space doesn’t even seem to be trying.

In fact, I think the only Canadian-Canadian movie Space has commissioned in 15 years was Borealis. What’s that? you ask. You don’t remember seeing it? That’s ’cause…they still haven’t aired it! And even then, Borealis, by all accounts, was intended as a pilot for a TV series that Space decided to pass on, so I suspect that, even if they do air it, and even if the movie has a self-contained plot, it’s not really going to be a satisfying movie-for-itself, being more just the set up for a series that never was.

Now SF and fantasy is a curious genre — the genre that dares not speak its name, if you will. There is perhaps no other genre where people will declare, absolutely, that they don’t like it — almost as though a source of pride! Not mysteries. Not westerns. Not rom-coms. Yet when it works, SF and fantasy can achieve a cultural resonance like few other genres: Frankenstein, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Alien, Terminator, Matrix, Harry Potter, Lost and so on. They become more than entertainment…they become touchstones. They become…culture.

But after 15 years, the Space brass is content to just sit back, programming endless re-runs of Super-Mega Shark Attack vs. The Singing Piranha of Doom Part III (or whatever).

Why? Because they don’t care? They don’t care about contributing to the culture? About programming something that people, years later, will still remember? Or because it would be too hard? Require too much money, too much co-ordination between financing partners? And with the knowledged that it’s more likely not to work than it is to work, so why try? Probably for all those reasons.

But maybe what Canadian film and TV needs is for someone to finally throw down the gauntlet, just as JFK did all those years ago when he vowed man would land on the moon. To not ask how or if something can be done…but simply to say: it will be done, damnit! Maybe a programmer at Space needs the hubris, the chutzpa, to release a public statement promising that within 5 years Space will broadcast a movie (or mini-series) that will blow us all away…and then set to work making that happen. A Canadian contribution to the genre (or, if it needs to be an international co-production to get the budget up, Canadian enough on screen that it doesn’t feel like just a farmed out branch plant Hollywood quickie).

A real science fiction movie, y’know, set in the future, or in outer space or on alien worlds — not just a gory horror film with steel grate floors or, more benignly, a low-budgeter about a human-looking outsider on modern earth.

And this can apply across the board, to various networks and production companies. I mean Space doesn’t have a monopoly on SF, so why hasn’t the CBC offered up a great Canadian SF movie? I think the last Canadian-made SF movie the CBC was involved in was Overdrawn at the Memory Bank some 30 years ago! (But the CBC has no issues with SF in general, having aired things like Taken and Cold Lazarus).

And the same philosophy can be applied to all genres. Mystery. Action-thriller. Romantic-Comedy.

Maybe people in the biz could look to role models: great Hollywood (or other movies) and say: okay…where’s our equivalent of that?

I mean, obviously, one can point to various examples in Canadian film which were inspired by movies — or at least, types of movies — en vogue at the time. “Fatal Attraction” and “Die Hard” spawned a whole industry of straight to video/DVD Canadian made movies…all invariably starring American actors and set in the United States. And there are even more individualistic efforts — if of varying degrees of success. I’m guessing the makers of The Nemesis Game had the Japanese movie The Ring at the back of their mind, while The Risen had a bit of an M. Night Shyamalan vibe to it. And sometimes…it actually works. Bon Cop, Bad Cop was an entry in the buddy cop genre and became one of the highest grossing Canadian films domestically ever.

The gauntlet needs to be cast, the ball thrown into the programmer’s court.

It’s been 15 years, Space, time to show us your hand…or fold and give up your seat to a real player.

Addendum: Space eventually aired Borealis in Jan., 2013, and I examine it more closely here.

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