Pod Bay One

2018 retrospective: television

Looking back on 2018 in science-fiction television, I discover I’ve forgotten as much as I actually enjoyed.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 4 January 2019

I tend to think that I don’t watch a lot of new television, but it turns out I just don’t remember a lot of it. There was a whole new series of The X-Files in 2018 that I just kind of forgot about, even though it was much better than the last one that I seethed over for two whole years. I can remember the episode that was mostly silent, some things about William, and an episode that was about Skinner.

But the standout episode was definitely Darrin Morgan’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (11X04), which critically examined the place of a show like The X-Files in an age of (acknowledged) fake news and conspiracy theories. Bizarrely, the episode makes a good case for the existence of a show like The X-Files, but not in the incarnation that Chris Carter decided to actually make in which the show’s incomprehensible mythology is rehashed, over-explained, and becomes not only still incomprehensible, but definitely much worse than we left it in 2002. (Or rather, 2015 if you’re me and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up to watch it in the mid-nineties so you only ended up binge-watching it when you eventually got Netflix nearly twenty years later.)

We should hardly be surprised that Chris Carter is incapable of seeing what would make The X-Files even better, given that he still doesn’t quite seem to realise that the show’s real treasure was Gillian Anderson’s Special Agent Dana Scully. Except that, of course he did – even as early as the second season he was insisting that she not be re-cast when the show’s producers discovered that she was pregnant. Given how long television and pregnancy have been going on, it should really be surprising that science fiction seems only capable of dealing with it through the “mystical pregnancy” trope. Still, there are good ways and bad ways of doing this.

The second season of Wynonna Earp coped admirably with star Melanie Scrofano’s pregnancy, and you can judge for yourself how far we’ve come based on the network’s reaction to the news. The third season deals somewhat with the fallout from this pregnancy, as Wynonna and her baby daddy come to terms with the fate of their child and the tensions it creates between them. But this season focused on other parents, flipping the traditional narrative by giving us a hero whose father is dead and whose mother is mysteriously absent. As the story surrounding Michelle Earp (née Gibson) developed, I had the sense that the show was playing a longer game that it’s previously been able, as the following season had already been greenlit for the first time in the show’s history. There’s more of mama Earp to come.

One of the things that Wynonna Earp gets very right is knowing what to take seriously and when to make jokes. There’s one scene when Wynonna is crouched, hiding behind a pool table from the firefighter she ghosted, and when she stands up Peacemaker gets caught in the pocket and she stumbles. Is this intentional, or an accident while filming? It doesn’t matter, because it so completely fits Wynonna’s character to be that clumsy and the show understands that silly little jokes like that only add to its appeal (behind-the-scenes footage reveals that Scrofano had many such on-set mishaps that wind up on-screen). Yet it never uses this humour to undermine its core premise – that the heir of Wyatt Earp must hunt down and kill with Peacemaker the seventy-seven people he killed in his lifetime, resurrected as demon Revanants – because if the show doesn’t take its concept seriously, it would fall apart.

I’m not quite certain that it’s a failure to know what to take seriously and what to joke about that makes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina so much less good than Wynonna Earp, but it certainly seems to be part of it. Another aspect is that half the dialogue is exposition, and that many of the scenes seem to go: [INT: a location that for some reason Sabrina has gone to, although it’s unclear why]; Any Random Character: “Hello Sabrina! Here’s some plot/backstory for you” [End scene]. Then there’s the fact that the show doesn’t seem to have any interest in any of its mortal characters, with the occasional exception of Harvey, the one I as a viewer find least interesting.

And yet, I’ve watched all of it and definitely enjoy it more than Riverdale, of which I managed all of nine episodes. I think part of that is because I can cope more with the nonsense if I’m watching a show rapidly – the ninth episode of Riverdale was when I caught up to its release on Netflix and had to wait a week between each episode, which definitely wasn’t worth it. But there’s also the fact that Sabrina’s style just makes more sense than that of Riverdale: this otherworldly, Catholic/Satanic setting can be timeless (and by “timeless” I think I mean “set in the 1980s’ obsession with the 1950s”) and it makes sense. I’m not sure that the creators of Sabrina quite know what they’re doing with this setting and this story, and it can be excruciating to listen to Aunt Hilda explain things to Sabrina about rituals she’s apparently been celebrating for fifteen years (the most common form of expository dialogue), but the show is quite pleasing to look at.

I fell behind on Netflix’s Marvel shows in 2018, and then almost every one I didn’t get around to was cancelled (sorry if this ends up happening to you, too, The Punisher, but I just haven’t managed to steel myself for your ridiculous, straight-faced violence yet). Because I will apparently only stick with a show if it has a woman’s name in the title, I did watch season 2 of Jessica Jones.

When I try to recall it now, the first thing that springs to mind is that one episode is called “The Octopus”, but at no point does anyone struggle to decide which plural of “octopus” they’re going to use (I like “octopodes”). But Jess, too, has a dead father and a mysteriously not-dead mother; and Trish’s abusive mother makes her reappearance here, too. Do these characters get to interact with their mothers because they’re women? Is that what it takes to get a mother to survive in a science fictional universe? (Dana Scully, of course, lost her father in the first episode in which he appeared, “Beyond the Sea”, and her sister about a year later; her mother made it to 2016, but is still dead.)

As a general rule, I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix shows more interesting than their movies, in that actions seem to have consequences and characters get more fleshed out. And yet, there were still so many of them, and so similar in their grimdark violence, that I struggled to keep up with them. I’ll miss Luke Cage’s cheesy jokes, and the contempt Jess got to hurl at Danny Rand in 2017’s The Defenders, but to be honest, I’m struggling to feel like I’ve lost something in these shows. The main reasons I enjoyed the ones that weren’t Jessica Jones was for their minor cameos in one another.

As, I assume, is the nature of television in the age of streaming, the most significant shows I watched in 2018 were old. Chief among these was Star Trek: Voyager, which I watched in its entirety with my spouse, following on from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 2017. I didn’t enjoy Voyager as much as DS9, my preference being for overarching narratives and grand plots with much foreshadowing, something that I think Voyager lacked for the most part, although characters like Captain Janeway and Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres were fantastic additions to the Star Trek canon of characters.

My interest in overarching storylines has a limit, though. 2018 saw the continuation of season one of Star Trek: Discovery, with the crew of the USS Discovery stranded in a (the?) mirror universe and trying to get home. I found its plot twists both increasingly ridiculous and yet still completely predictable; its plot lacking in any substantive meaning or insight into what might drive the powerful to do despicable things. There’s a sense, in the mirror universe seen throughout Star Trek series past, that characters we know to be good and noble, existing in a universe in which the paths of least resistance encourage greed and violence, become bad people – but it’s an interpretation that even in the best of Star Treks is something that I bring to it rather than it brings to me. Discovery had no such nuance, implied or otherwise, and couldn’t even use the mirror universe as a comedy romp the way DS9 tended to do towards the end.

I also finished watching Gilmore Girls, including the 2016 miniseries Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. While the only science-fictional premsise in the show is that Lorelai and Rory Gilmore could eat the way they do and continue to look like Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, A Year in the Life did lead me to reflect on the point of revivals in television series so many years later. I think A Year in the Life is much better than The X-Files revivals – both seasons 10 and 11 and the 2008 film The X-Files: I Want to Believe – because much of what it does serves largelty as what I’ve come to think of as a “victory lap”, looking back on these characters and saying, nearly a decade later, “yeah, they’re doing alright.”

Looking forward to 2019, I wonder if, in the current incarnation of Star Trek on television, it’s possible that the proposed Picard series can be as good as I found A Year in the Life (and I’m led to understand that my view is far more positive than average) rather than just ruining everything, the way The X-Files seems intent on doing sometimes.