Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Continuum of Thought

Outside the field of pure literature - and even then, it can be scarce - Canadian science fiction is rather thin on the ground. With the United States right next door, it's not difficult to understand why. With a shared language and historically porous border, it's always been all that Canada can do to keep from being overwhelmed by American cultural exports, and there are few things that dovetail with the American spirit as well as science fiction does. Nor did we ever have our own version of Doctor Who, not with the CBC grudgingly supported by governments but never given what it needed for true independence. Especially when it comes to televised works, generally the best we've been able to get are Canadian/American productions like Stargate SG-1 and its successor series.

But now there's Continuum, a science fiction television series that began airing its first run of ten episodes last Sunday - created by a Canadian, produced by a Canadian company, filmed in Canada, aired on a Canadian specialty channel, and starring a cast that is almost entirely Canadian... I'm starting to recognize a pattern here. Continuum is one of those rare discoveries, a Canadian science fiction series. It's not often I discover things while they're still new. Usually I'm just oblivious and hampered by my lack of cable. Fortunately, not everyone is; it blew away existing records by pulling in 900,000 viewers on the first broadcast, so it may well escape the fate of previous Canadian-made series such as The Starlost.

Nevertheless, I figured it might be instructive to take a look at the first episode, and evaluate how the crew's begun to set the story up and where they might go.

Quick summary, then: Continuum follows Kiera Cameron, played by Rachel Nichols, a Vancouver cop (actually, "City Protective Services Protector") from 2077, who along with a group of terrorists about to be executed is thrown back to 2012 in a last-ditch time travel attempt gone horribly right. Cut off and alone sixty-five years before her own time, it's up to Cameron to apprehend the terrorists and, somehow, get home. On its own, not particularly groundbreaking; there's a whiff of a Terminator vibe, but since none of the characters are soldiers or robots there's probably little danger of Harlan Ellison threatening legal action here. But there are options. It's one of the few shows both filmed and set in Vancouver, which means that our heroine can wander up Granville Street in a daze without the producers having to unfurl the Stars and Stripes or line the road with U.S. Mail and USA Today boxes beforehand.

Anyone in this photograph could be a time traveller.

That's not to say this series is a shining star. I've heard complaints about the acting, but that's not going to be something I focus on, since it has to skew pretty close to Manos: The Hands of Fate territory before I can really notice it without being told. Instead, I'm more interested in the writing - how the creators went about setting up their story, their conflict, and their future. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I can tell you right now that I definitely wouldn't have approached it in the same manner.

There's a rule in writing, possibly one of the most important rules: "show, don't tell." At its core, this means that good writing gets something across by demonstrating the truth of something, rather than just stating it. If a character is angry, you show them punching the walls, or being overwhelmingly calm, or whatever else is appropriate based on that character. You do not have them announce that something makes them feel angry.

It can be a bit more tricky when you're dealing with a visual medium, though it still exists - and I feel that the greatest flaw in Continuum so far is that it has told us too much. Take the terrorists, for example - they're part of a group struggling against a world where governments and corporations have colluded to such a degree that there's such a thing as the "Corporate Congress," where freedoms of speech and assembly have been stripped away. But the problem is they tell us too much about them. Until the episode specifically told me "hey, these guys are the villains," I was having a bit of trouble with it.

In fact, they tell us too much, too fast about the future. Personally, I think the nature of the future is something that should have been revealed slowly over the course of multiple episodes. Say, start off the episode with the prison scene, the characters are immediately transported back to 2012, and the future is gradually filled in not only through flashbacks where appropriate, but through the actions of the characters. The way people conduct themselves shows a lot about the sort of world they come from.

This sort of thing is present in the series' depiction of the future, to some degree - while for many people, the most striking thing about the 2077 SkyTrain Cameron rides to the prison might be that the announcements are made in Chinese only, for me it was that it was completely standing-room - no seats whatsoever. An implication of a crowded world, an uncomfortable world, just by the way it builds its transit. Likewise, the 2077 SkyTrain retains the same door-opening chime that you'll find on the system today - one of only a handful of elements connecting the Vancouvers of 2012 and 2077 together. In the establishing shot of the prison you can see the twisted, partially submerged wrecks of the cargo cranes at the foot of Main Street, and though I've seen media references to the Lions Gate Bridge remaining in background shots, I didn't pick up it. Nevertheless, the lack of many other familiar anchors works well, in its way - it's a sort of whisper, "something serious happened between now and then."

When it comes to Erik Knudsen's character, the 17-year-old technical genius Alec Sadler, I can't help but think his direct involvement in the episode's events was a negative. In-story, he's recently built the prototype of some kind of encrypted communication system that Cameron uses in 2077, and so he's able to hear and be heard by her, see through her eyes, and so on, presumably setting him up for the Mission Control role later in the series. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this; again, I just think it happened too fast. Cameron arrives in 2012, loses the terrorists, is disoriented and trying to report in, and Sadler immediately starts chiding her for breaking into his groundbreaking encryption.

It seems too convenient, really. Not only has he already developed the prototype of the technology that's used in the future, it has absolutely no compatibility issues with something sixty-five years more advanced, and when Cameron starts trying to report in he's already monitoring and jumps on it immediately. The problem I have with this is that it denies Cameron an opportunity for character development - we're denied the chance to see this person when she's completely cut off and completely alone, lost in an unfamiliar environment with little clue of where to go next.

Still, I'm interested in seeing where they take this. I just wish they could have left some more things unsaid for a while. If you're interested in checking the series out, Showcase has it up for online streaming here.

1 comment:

  1. I can see what you're saying regarding the writing. However, it is only the first episode and I think these days writers might be dumbing it down a little to get more viewers hooked. I may be wrong about that last part, but it's my theory.

    What I really loved though was this one small thing they showed, but didn't tell and you had to rely on your memory to really get it.

    In the beginning they show this old man who seems to be a friend of Kiera's and is sitting behind the glass while they publicly try to execute the liber8 group. After they disappear, you see him smile. Of course that's interesting, but we don't really know why. We almost forget about it until the end of the episode.

    The old man is Alec. So was Alec just glad they got away because it was entertaining? Or is he connected with liber8? Did he know about time travel? When did he switch sides (if he actually did)...So many questions ran through my mind at the end.

    ...Also Kiera's husband from the future sure seemed to know what was going to happen to her before it happened.

    Other than that, my biggest annoyance about the show was the fact that the Vancouver Police didn't ask Kiera for a badge even once.

    I really do hope they find their footing in the next few episodes.