Monday, August 6, 2012

Fixing Continuum

Continuum hasn't gone away. The Vancouver-produced, Vancouver-filmed, luxuriating-in-Vancouver series aired the final episode of its first season yesterday, and over the past weeks it's been picking up attention across the internet. My guess is that a lot of it has to do with the lack of competition; 2012 is not exactly a golden age of televised science fiction. It's a show that I've been following, but in a combative sort of way... in that it's rare that an episode goes by without me pausing it for an extended period so that I can swear at the screen. Continuum may not have gone away, and while it's no The Starlost, the way I see it it's shot through with structural compromises that make it stagger when it could have sprinted.

This isn't the first time I've written about the series here, and it may not be the last. Continuum is particularly important now, I think, because it's a sort of standard bearer--not only for televised sf, but for Canadian television in general. It burns me up to see shows like this not living up to their potential, and because it's something that even a person as oblivious as myself can recognize.

If I had to sum up what this show has done in its first season, it would be this: "missed opportunities." Even though the whole "cop from the future thrown back to the past to apprehend dangerous criminals" concept has been done before, it's hardly been tapped out, and the flexibility of a series offers a hell of a lot more opportunities to dig into the possibilities that concept affords than does a two-hour movie. Nevertheless, if there's anything the writers of Continuum seem to be doing, it's navigating characters around spots where the status quo might be upset and where the characters could find room to grow.

Let this photo represent time, because I like it. And, you know, the clock.

For me, this is most glaringly obvious when it comes to Kiera Cameron, protagonist and unintentional time traveller. At the end of the first episode she managed to finagle her way into working with the Vancouver Police Department, posing as a federal agent, to better pursue the criminals from the future. But the problem I find is that if viewers weren't specifically told she's from the future in the opening sequence of every episode, you wouldn't necessarily know it--especially not from her actions. To be honest, I don't buy Cameron as a person from the future.

Why? Well, first, there's the issue of basic culture that everyone grows up in, is surrounded by, and uses as a baseline in terms of their actions. From what we've been shown, it's needless to say that the basic culture of 2077 would be vastly different from that of the modern day. Imagine finding yourself back in 1947, for example--you wouldn't have to look very hard back then to find something repugnant, like the casual racism and sexism. What we've been shown of the future is enough to say that Cameron would have a hell of a difficult time adjusting to the present. Bear in mind that she comes from a time in which a Macross Missile Massacre is part of standard operating procedure for arresting unarmed suspects. A time where basic rights barely exist and a time in which personal surveillance is ubiquitous.

Sure, this is the sort of stuff Cameron would get used to, but until she did get used to there would be plenty of room for character development. Instead, she seems static--aside from the standard "time traveller doesn't know how to drive" shtick and a fascination with horses, which may have gone extinct in her future, there's not really anything. Look at Life on Mars for an alternative view--Sam Tyler only went back thirty-three years, and he didn't just adjust like it was pulling an old sock inside out.

Then there's the gadgets. It wouldn't be science fiction without the gadgets, right? That sort of thinking may be why they've been treated the way they have, exemplified by Eric Knudsen's teen genius character managing to repair Cameron's shorted-out service suit... a suit that's state-of-the-art sixty-five years from now, based on dizzyingly advanced technology. To go back to 1947 again, imagine if you damaged your smartphone while there--how believable do you think it would be for some local teen genius to fix it, considering that the transistor itself was only invented in that year, and the integrated circuits upon which modern microcomputers rely weren't manufactured until the 1960s?

Here, I feel the writers missed an excellent opportunity to create a character arc for Cameron. Sure, when she arrives in 2012 she's still got all her tools, her future gun, her suit, and so on, and thanks to them outclasses any local individual. The thing about tools, though... tools break. When her suit got overloaded during a fight partway through the season, it should have stayed unusable. After the terrorists actually succeeded in briefly taking control of her by using her head implants like a puppeteer's strings, she should have lost the use of that too--and with it her ability to identify fingerprints, read a person's vital signs, and so on right at a glance. Cameron's overarching goal is to return to the future, but she could have had a character arc that shows us how she copes and, more importantly, who she is when those pieces of the future fall away, one-by-one, leaving her trapped in an unfamiliar time and forced to do a job that she's relearning as she goes.

I don't know if Continuum has a writer's bible. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't. To me, it has more of the sense that there wasn't much pre-planning in this regard, that the writers came up with these things as they went. That wouldn't necessarily have been a problem even as recently as the 1990s, when episodic series were the rule, but it's 2012 now--a different world. The past, if you'll recall, is a foreign country. People do things differently there.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree as far as Cameron's bungled character arc is concerned. I'm also annoyed by the 'the tech can do anything the plot requires' that they pulled a few times - the most egregious being when Cameron shot a suspect full of some sort of truth serum to get him to spill his guts in the space of two scenes (and hadn't been mentioned before or since, despite how helpful it would be). But the thing that really bugs me is the abject failure of the 'Liber8' plotline. In the first few episodes, they played it cagey as to who were the 'good guys' and who were the 'bad guys'. The possibility that Cameron could have been on the wrong side of the angels would also been a good character arc. All of this has been ditched in favour of a too clever for it's own good 'go back in time and change history' conspiracy. Lastly, I find myself constantly frustrated by Liber8's tactics: here is a set of people who have knowledge of the future. They could make themselves wealthy and powerful enough to change to future without firing a shot. We know this for a fact: the 'renegade' (Kellog) has used his foreknowledge to live the good life he never had in his own time.

    John S.