Borealis (part 2) – the problem with pilots

Last time I was writing about Borealis, the science fiction Canadian TV movie/pilot that the Space Channel decided not to greenlight for a full series months before they had even bothered to broadcast it.

In my previous post I was writing about how good it was in many ways, in terms of acting, production and premise. But it had some flaws…

A minor, debateable one is Borealis clearly wanted to be “adult” SF, presenting a realistic and plausible world, more than Saturday matinee sci-fi. But maybe tossing a few bones to the sci-fi crowd wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Y’know — a telepath, or a guy with a bionic arm, or something. Maybe references to a genetics lab working to create humans who thrive in the Arctic. Maybe the thawing permafrost could have exposed evidence of some prehistoric mystery. I’m just aware that sometimes SF series will brag about how not-SF they are…and just end up winning neither SF fans nor non-SF fans.

There were more fundamental flaws.

For one, despite the multinational characters and the intent of doing a program about hidden agendas and uncertain alliances…the Russian bad guys are pretty much cartoony, one-note bad guys that make Boris and Natasha look like sensitive cultural archetypes. Decades after the cold war, it seems the notion of the amoral, villainous Russian is still a perfectly okay narrative crutch. But surely a show like this should be about shades of grey.

But this also ties into the nominal plot of Borealis. The movie opens dramatically with a body falling out of the sky, to land sprawled and broken upon the unforgiving tundra. Ah hah! — we think — a murder mystery to wrap our inaugural story around. Yet then within a few scenes, we learn who killed him (by the convenient method of a supporting character apparently asking around…and being told). And then a few scenes after that, we learn why he was killed. So much for the mystery. The rest is just the characters wandering around, butting heads over jurisdictions, with occasional murder attempts…though why anyone is trying to murder anyone is unclear since, as mentioned, it’s not really a secret who killed the man at the beginning, so it’s not like anything needs to be covered up.

The result is a movie where you can enjoy it for the characters, the scenes, the milieu, the clever interaction and veiled innuendos…but lacks a firm plot to drag everything forward.

And this then leads to Borealis’ biggest weakness — and that’s that it makes no attempt to hide the fact that it is, ultimately, just a pilot for a series that never was. One can blame the Space brass for their failure to greenlight a series, for their lack of vision, or commitment to uniquely Canadian programming — but the fault with the plotting lies solely with the writers. It isn’t that the TV movie ends on a cliff hanger — not at all. It’s just after 85 minutes the credits start to role and you can find yourself going — um, so that was it, then? Sure, there’s a big, dramatic fight in the climax, as our ex-fighter hero steps back into the cage. But memo to writers Andrew Rai Berzins and Andrew Wreggitt, just because you put a fight in your final act doesn’t mean you’ve actually resolved a plot. Particularly as the whole grudge fight plot seemed tacked on simply to justify a climactic fight, as it arose out of the villains trying to kill someone — for reasons, as mentioned, that made little sense — leading to a Russian, who I’m not sure had appeared much or at all earlier, insulting a woman, causing a character, who we barely knew, coming to her defense…all so we can build to a climax where Vic fights this largely irrelevant Russian over this fairly contrived grievance.

(Although some of that, now that I think about it, may stem from the fact that 2 hour pilots are often deliberately structured to be broken into two 1 hour episodes of the series, so the very fact that the characters and the concept of the grudge fight didn’t really seem to arise until half way through was because it was, in a sense, meant to be an episode in itself).

Part of the weakness is structural, I suppose. In that the original murder, and subsequent events revolve around the evil Russians trying to fake an archaeological find that Vic attempts to foil. But all that is basically explained and presented earlier in the film, so it doesn’t really feel like it has anything to do with the final act.

Ultimately, Borealis just feels like a well acted, well presented sojourn in this milieu, enjoying the character interaction, with plot threads loosely strung throughout. And then it ends saying “Come back real soon, y’hear?”

What it doesn’t feel like is a movie — a tightly plotted, exciting story (or mystery) which builds to an inevitable and definitive climax, and leaves you going: “Wow! — let’s do that again!”

Borealis is a pilot — an entertaining pilot to be sure but a pilot nonetheless. And, of course, the makers would argue that, yeah, that’s because that’s what it was. But really, it should’ve been something more. Going into it, they knew they were facing the odds, that the likelihood of going to a full series was slim — that’s just the nature of the business. So their first priority was to make a good movie that then, if a miracle occurred and a series order came down, could then be continued into weekly adventures.

As it is, Borealis is left to stand on its own from now till the end of time (or thereabouts). It might crop up from time to time in late night movie slots, or settle on a DVD shelf. Future viewers will give it a try, probably enjoying the first few scenes, amazed they had never heard of this smart, slick, well-acted, unusual sci-fi film before…and then they’ll reach the end and go…”huh.” And instead of raving to their friends about this great movie they saw…they might, off the cuff, mention how they saw this entertaining failed pilot and it was sure too bad it didn’t…

See the difference?

Unfortunately, this is a problem plaguing modern TV — from orphan pilots that don’t really make the leap to being proper stand alone stories, to TV series that get cancelled and end on unresolved cliff hangers even though the creators had known for months that the ratings were slumping and renewal was unlikely. They do it because, well, they don’t care. They’re Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and hoping if he doesn’t look down he won’t fall. But they have to start thinking in terms of posterity, of reruns and DVD sales. A cancelled series might still be selling years down the line on DVD…and will sell even better if prospective viewers know there isn’t some annoying cliff hanger waiting for them at the final episode.

I mean, obviously — any pilot will, inevitably, have pilot-like aspects, but some can be more satisfying than others. I recently caught an enjoyable TV movie from 2011 called Three Inches — made for the U.S. SyFy channel it may or may not have been a Canadian co-production (it was shot in Canada with a mainly Canadian cast). A comedic suspense movie about heroes with misfit super powers it was a pilot for a never-made series. And though that was obvious, and character threads left dangling…nonetheless I’d argue it satisfied as a watch for itself alone. It told a story, it built to a climax, and it resolved. Yes, you made allowances, knowing it was really meant to front further adventures…but it still worked as a movie.

And Borealis was good enough — it honestly was — to have had the potential to be a great movie. I mean, even with no series in the offing, Space might have been convinced to spring for a sequel, or maybe a series of TV movies — but that would require each individual instalment satisfying on its own. Instead, it’s just a very good pilot.

And, hey, maybe that’s why the Space brass bailed on a series — for all the good things about Borealis, maybe they worried the writers hadn’t shown them they could deliver in the plotting department, with a well structured plot that built to a satisfying resolution. Still, the fact that the Space brass decided to pull the plug without even giving it a chance borders on a crime. No doubt there were factors that made sense. Doubtless it was expensive (the location shooting alone) and no doubt they worried about being able to market it internationally. But, y’know, gambles have to be taken if you want to succeed. A series like Primeval: The New World no doubt seemed like a safer bet — based on a pre-existing franchise with a ready made international fandom, and, y’know, dinosaurs! But that’s the point: it’s safer. Whether a series based on Borealis would’ve succeeded or not, or whether it could’ve won over viewers in America, Europe, Australia — who knows? But, honestly, the very things that no doubt scared the Space executives off (the tundra setting, the political machinations, the Canadianness) is precisely what might have caught the attention of international viewers growing bored with SF series that just look and sound and act like every other SF series.

It might well have been Canada’s SF series, like Star Trek is American and Dr. Who is British — and in a way Primeval: The New World and Continuum aren’t and have no intention of being.

To paraphrase a man on a world of monkeys: “Damn you, Space Channel — God damn you all to Hellllll!”

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6 Responses to Borealis (part 2) – the problem with pilots

  1. Karen I. Noftsier says:

    I came to watch #BOREALIS because of Ty Olsson. He is now a member of the #SUPERNATURAL family and we support all of our family members’ endeavours! I grew up within 35 miles of the Canadaian border with northern NY.
    Ty has made a grand effort on social media to promote #BOREALIS and we have supported all of his efforts. SPACEchannel has been silent as to their reasons for not picking #BOREALIS up as a series. Obviously, Ty has the full support of the #SUPERNATURAL fandom, how can any network ignore that? #BOREALIS is now Ty(ied) to #SUPERNATURAL and we, as fans will continue to support both of them!

  2. The Misanthrope says:

    One wonders how much of an influence the recent semi re-branding of the Space channel had on the decision to kill plans to produce the series. The female viewer skewing re-branding (similar to the ill-conceived and ultimately unsuccessful metamorphosis of the Scream channel into Dusk) would have been in the planning stages when the fate of Borealis was sealed.

    • Administrator says:

      Wasn’t aware of any re-branding or skewing to either gender (save a lot of “reality” shows which I don’t think we can blame on women viewers). I suspect Space just balked at doing a blatantly Canadian, relatively expensive series, with no international co-producers on board up front. And possibly even were scared off by knowing Defiance was in the works — a more flamboyant, but thematically similar series (a future, environmentally altered earth, set in a frontier town where the drama is about how different groups interact). Aside from anything else, what’s too bad about not continuing with Borealis is it was set in the future (kind of at the core of SF) whereas Space’s other Canadian-produced series are set in modern times with a fantastical element.

  3. Tony In Ottawa says:

    I stumbled across this last night. I’m an older gentleman and not a huge sci-fi fan but really loved the show. Imagine my disappointment when I searched for Borealis to set my PVR to record the series only to find it doesn’t exist. Too bad.

  4. irwin barrett says:

    I came here wondering what was going on with this show- was it going to be a new series? I liked it and thought it had potential. What i can’t figure out about the suits at Space is really DUMB Decisions like dropping Supernatural and then picking up that lame excuse for a series called Castle?! WOW!! What great science fiction that is !!! Heads should roll over that one!

    • Administrator says:

      Yeah, Castle seems a bit incongruous But I suspect Space figured it was a good fit because of Nathan Fillion, who has a bit of genre fandom in a Bruce Campbell way. Ripper Street also seems like Space is interpreting its mandate by the loosest definition lol.