Recently there has been a dust-up on certain blogs and forums about the state of science fiction on TV, either a) bemoaning its quality or b) bemoaning how shows that are actually interesting, like Firefly or Dollhouse, often don't last long.
I think at least part of the remedy to both these problems can be solved with a relatively simple shift in approach: abandon one-hour shows for half-hour ones.
The idea would be attractive to networks, as half-hour shows would be cheaper to produce and invest in in the long term. They could try out twice as many ideas and approaches than they do currently, enabling them to more easily find the properties that will strike a chord with audiences and make them a profit.
And for fans, the switch would be even better in my opinion, as writers would have to cut a lot of extraneous dramatic junk that I think tends to drag down the worst of the hour-long shows. Scifi stories on TV can get leaner and meaner, focusing much more on important story elements while cutting a lot of the b-story plots used to just fill in time in hour-long episodes.
I haven't come to this conclusion in a vacuum, either. I've recently watched quite a bit of half-hour science fiction shows that easily equal anything the hour dramas have produced. Unfortunately, they weren't made in North America or even Europe. Yes, I'm talking about (gasp!) Anime.
Despite what some purist snobs in the West may think, Anime has indeed produced science fiction on par with the very best the West has produced. All one has to do is watch series like Cowboy Bebop or Planetes or Ghost in the Shell to attest to that.
That's not to say that there isn't a lot of mediocre anime out there; there is, and Sturgeon's Law (which states that the majority of anything is crap) holds true for it as for anything else. But the very best of it does demonstrate definitively that half-hour science fiction can be high-quality, mature, intelligent, and exciting. And there was nothing I saw FX-wise in shows like *Bebop* or *Planetes* that couldn't be done in live-action nowadays. It would just be a matter of finding the right pacing and approach to make such shows work, depending on the concept.
Somehow, though, there seems to be a stigma against half-hour dramas in the US. Half-hour time slots are reserved for comedies, hours for dramas, and that's the way its been for decades now. I'm not sure if that could be changed around enough to give any half-hour scifi TV show a decent chance. But then, if the show is good enough, it would find an audience no matter what.
What I'm basically saying is that if the Japanese can produce quality half-hour science fiction shows, we should be able to as well. And it would help to seriously re-invigorate a TV genre that seems stalled for some time now. Anyway, something to think about.
(Cowboy Bebop copyright Sunrise.)