Borealis (part 1) – The great Canadian Science Fiction series that never was?

Back in 2011 press releases went out announcing production on a TV movie/pilot for Canada’s Space Channel called Borealis. News of it no doubt piquing the curiosity of more than a few cultural watchers and sci-fi fans because it seemed to be promising to be something that had rarely — if ever — been attempted before: a truly Canadian science fiction movie.

Although Canada can lay claim (either wholly or as co-productions) to various SF and fantasy movies over the years — from various David Cronenberg flicks, to Screamers, to what have you — and TV series as far back as The Starlost and as recently as Primeval: The New World, there was usually a caveat. They either didn’t admit they were Canadian or, as has been the case more recently, they admit to their Canadian setting but in a vague, non-descript way with taboos clearly in place — namely anything that might seem too, y’know, Canadian (ie: not American) all in the name of securing an American distribution and a U.S. broadcaster. TV series like Continuum and Primeval: The New World, one suspects, have an entire bible of forbidden words and phrases handed down to the writers and actors. No references to Ottawa as the seat of government (just refer to “the government” if you need to mention federal authority), no idiosyncratic Canadian references, and so on. The problem is it renders the result just a little…generic. Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer divorced from its Southern California milieu, or Doctor Who bleached of all its anglicisms (good bye, time machine that looks like a blue police box).

So then came announcement of Borealis — set in the Canadian north that, as a result of global warming, has become a wild west-like frontier of rival powers. It wasn’t just going to be set grudgingly in Canada, seemed to be the promise…the story was predicated on being set in Canada

But then it was announced that, no, the Space brass had elected not to go ahead with a series — based purely on behind-the-scenes factors. The public hadn’t seen one frame of footage, so it had nothing to do with ratings or reviews. TV fans know programming decisions can often be mysterious and obscure, sometimes based on empirical ratings — sometimes seeming dictated by someone in the programmer’s office reading pigeon entrails a certain way. And in Canada, decisions can be even harder to fathom.

Despite having the TV movie/pilot in the can, Space executives sat on it, and sat on it, and sat on it, finally premiering it Jan. 11, 2013 (and as I write this still available for streaming from the Space website). A rather protracted delay.

And if one were cynical, one might understand the executives’ decision after having seen the finished film. They held it back till the sets had been thoroughly scraped, the actors dispersed and released from their contracts, till the ground had been effectively salted, so to speak. Because having seen Borealis…it’s actually pretty good, and one suspects the Space brass wanted to effectively cut off any fan agitation before it could begin, and choke off any serious questions about why they chose not to pursue it as a series. Borealis is dead and buried, is the message, we couldn’t change our minds now even if we wanted to — move on. The show’s star, Ty Olsson, who basically on his own has tried to drum up publicity for it with interviews and tweets, admitted in an on-line interview even he didn’t know when it was going to air until a few days before it did — suggesting Space is definitely trying to curb any potential fandom from arising.

Now though I say Borealis was pretty good, it had its flaws, too. But first, what’s good.

It looked good. Though doubtless working with a modest budget, they made it work for them. Set in a deliberately grungy frontier outpost comprised of corrugated steel and temporary shelters — like they raided the set of Combat Hospital — yet then with just enough money put aside for computer holograms, a zero gravity room, and flying airships looming overhead to create the illusion that any cost cutting was for artistic themes, not budget considerations. And the whole thing was shot on location against a stark Alberta landscape standing in for a thawing Arctic tundra, with the Aurora Borealis occasionally flickering overhead. Borealis pulled off the trick of looking comfortably like any of a number of grungy, cyberpunk SF movies and series…even as that rugged, sunlit landscape gave it a look and ambience, arguably, unlike any other SF TV series ever made.

The focal hero is Vic, an ex-cage fighter turned tavern owner turned local authority as the Canada Custom’s representative — he’s a little bit of Rick (from Casablanca), Han Solo (from Star Wars) and a lot of Mal (from Firefly). A cynic and a rogue (but with a heart), he’s at the heart of the action, but it’s a huge cast of characters that swirls around him, the bedrock of the drama being all the different forces and factions, pursuing various agendas, hidden and obvious, legal and illegal. Canada exerts a nominal authority in the region, but only just, with various zones controlled by Russians, Danes, and the Chinese. What’s needed, some argue, is for the League of Nations (essentially the U.N.) to come in and settle things, while others feel that’ll be just one more authority of uncertain power and even more uncertain intentions.

Science fiction is often used as a chance to explore, metaphorically, the modern world and modern issues, so past SF shows can be seen as metaphors for the Cold War or the War on Terror, cautionary parables about over reliance on technology, or the rise of the internet. And in that sense, Borealis stakes out an unusual territory of being a metaphor for the modern era of international conflict, peacekeepers, and diplomatic kerfuffles, where victory belongs not to he with the biggest laser or starship, but he who can navigate the backroom deals and ambiguous alliances and red tape (as a local military officer laments, he has the power to investigate…but not actually arrest). In a sense, it becomes the ideal Canadian SF story, in the same way that Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, with their “super power in space”, served as an American SF concept. It’s about middle powers squabbling over dwindling resources, and in spirit follows in the narrative footsteps of such blistering contemporary-set Canadian peacekeeper dramas like Answered by Fire and ZOS: Zone of Separation.

And, of course, just by its physical setting, it is Canadian — and one doesn’t get the impression there’s a bible of forbidden words or phrases they had to consult before stepping before the camera. Though that brings up an amusing aside: in the initial press releases, a character played by Mayko Nguyen was described as a governmental “Secretary of…”, a title I — and others — noted was more an American term than Canadian; when the movie aired, Nguyen’s character was now being defined as a “Director” of her department. Coincidence — or were the makers responding to such on-line kibitzing? (Though I still say she should’ve been a “Minister” or “Deputy Minister” just to make it more Canadian).

Often Canadian stories have to struggle with the ever present American shadow, leading either to stories where the Canadians are depicted as sidekicks to the American figures or, swinging the other way, overtly anti-American, all about plucky Canadians thwarting sinister Americans. But Borealis avoids either extreme…simply by ignoring America. Set so far north, the main powers are Canadian, Russian, Scandinavian — America just isn’t relevant. There is an American character, but he is no more — or less — important than the English, Italian, or Chinese characters.

The movie boasts a good cast all around. Occupying the centre seat, Ty Olsson is one of those actors people recognize but may have trouble putting a name to the face. Generally cast in supporting roles, with no particular signature persona (sometimes nice guys, sometimes creeps) I’ll freely admit, I wouldn’t necessarily have pegged him as the guy to anchor a big ensemble — and I’d be wrong. Olsson is very good here, convincing, charismatic, and perhaps most effectively pulling off a tricky character. Vic is sort of a nice guy, generally doing the right thing for the right reasons for the right people…but he’s also a bit of a scoundrel, and a crook when it suits him. It’s a character that would be so easy to play too correctly…and end up making obnoxious and unsympathetic, the “anti”-hero overshadowing the “hero”. But Olsson reins it in, Vic ultimately a likeable rogue. I’ve always maintained the key ingredient to any character, and to making them sympathetic, is relationships. And so Vic does like the characters around him — if grudgingly — and they him, most notably Taq (played by Patrick Gallagher) as his solid right hand, a kind of burly Spock to his disreputable Kirk.

So Borealis has a lot going for it. It looks good. It has a great cast of familiar faces — half these actors I’d happily watch starring in something, not just as players in an ensemble — with quirky, diverse characters, and good interaction, briskly paced with witty banter and amusing quips. It’s both familiar enough in themes and style not to be too radical and experimental — you can detect echoes in it of anything from Firefly, to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, to the cable series, Deadwood and even the 1981 Sean Connery feature film Outland — even as it can arguably boast aspects unlike anything before it, from the breathtaking northern vistas, the real world elements of international friction and territorial squabbling, to the simple fact that it makes no apologies for its Canadianness.

Ideologically, it swings about in the middle. On one hand, with its global warming premise, it’s unlikely to find favour among right wingers, yet equally it plays into right wing/libertarian paranoia, with the villains foreigners, and regarding the U.N.-like League of Nations as an untrustworthy, possibly sinister, body.

Borealis does have some flaws.

So we’ll look at those next times…as well as the greater ramifications of Space’s decision not to follow through, and the fatal flaw of TV pilots…

This entry was posted in Canadian film and TV, Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Borealis (part 1) – The great Canadian Science Fiction series that never was?

  1. Dwolfy says:

    Really ? Its not gonna be on every week? I was already getting set to watch it every week – a rare event. The first good new show I’ve seen all summer.