Zombie TV Shows

Zombie TV Shows. Not, alas, TV shows about zombies, but rather TV shows that won’t stay dead. Even when it might be better if they did

Firstly there’s Star Trek, a tv show – nay, a franchise – that was so thoroughly mined for so long that by the time it ended there was almost nothing left of what made it special in the first place. I’ll confess to being a bit of a Trekkie in my youth, and I feel an enduring fondness for the original show, not to mention TNG and DS9. But the franchise overstayed its welcome by at least ten years, becoming increasingly insipid and anachronistic as it did so, and I’m in no great hurry to see more. Received wisdom seems to be that the concept needs at least a decade lying fallow, if it ever comes back at all.

Naturally, therefore, they’re making more. J.J.Abrams of Alias and M:I3 fame is now developing a prequel/reboot of the franchise with a film set during the early days of Kirk and Spock. The characters would of course be re-cast. It’s a bold, not to say foolhardy, idea to try to play around with such well-established characters in this way, particularly characters so closely identified with the original actors for 40 years. Steve Martin has twice scraped the bottom of the barrel by recreating Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, and the lesson to be learned is that some characters simply can’t be successfully adapted by new actors. Even Trek fans have been recasting the original series for a few years now with the lovingly incestuous New Voyages, ambitious fan-produced episodes of the original Star Trek show. Recently they’ve even recruited Mr Chekov himself, Walter Koenig, and original series writer DC Fontana, to produce a new episode. However while the sets and production values are surprisingly impressive, the recreations of the original characters are not.

It’s not the first time such an idea has been mooted. Leaving aside those scary rumours of a Starfleet Academy movie in the late 80s, Babylon 5‘s J.Michael Straczynski and Dark Skies‘ Bryce Zabel submitted a proposal in 2004 to pull a Battlestar Galactica on Star Trek, rebooting the original characters and their 5 year mission with a modern sensibility. You can find a pdf of their pitch over at Bryce Zabel’s blog. Here’s a taster:

Have you ever made a copy of a copy of a copy, to the point where, after enough the blurry words look like they were written on a 1947 Olympia typewriter with ribbon?

Over the decades, Star Trek has become so insular, so strictly defined, and placed layers upon itself that some of the essence of what made us love it in the first lost. The all-too-reasonable desire to protect the franchise may now be the
stagnation.

Imagine buying a new Porsche and leaving it in the garage all the time, because out on the road, it might get scratched. But that is exactly what’s happened The Porsche’s still clean and polished, but we’re driving around in a nice, reasonable
car.

It’s time to throw caution to the wind and go out for a drive…a real drive…

It’s tough to argue with their premise, but easier to argue with their conclusions. Where is the sense in dragging something kicking and screaming back to the light in such a way as to be nearly unrecognisable? While the new Battlestar Galactica may have soared to great heights (and plumbed a few depths) it would in many ways have been far preferable to build a brand new TV show, free from the shackles of the past. That way you don’t piss off your existing fanbase, and you don’t have to overcome the collective preconceptions of millions of casual viewers. Of course the real reason they do it is because it’s easier to sell an established brand name, however devalued, than to create buzz around something new. That kind of bottom-line marketing is ultimately quite depressing, and the reason why we’re bombarded with nothing but big budget sequels and remakes at the cinema every summer.

And yet, despite all that, the low-tech teaser poster is really rather evocative, and there’s a certain Batman Begins thrill that could be had if done correctly. So let’s just hope that the movie-going public is precisely as shallow as me.

The second zombie lurching back to life is Straczynski’s own Babylon 5, a series that’s been lying at the bottom of the stairs with its neck at a funny angle for some years now, but is beginning to stir once more. The original show certainly didn’t exhaust its potential in the way that Star Trek did, but neither has it proven to have much promise of longevity. Quite the reverse, it’s repeatedly proven itself impervious to sequels and expansions. The original series was always at its best when it had built up a head of steam; with the momentum of a long story arc to pay off there was little that could rival it. Its characters may have been banal on an episodic basis, but they became absorbingly complex over the long haul. When the series tried to create small standalone episodes or TV movies it invariably floundered, with the majority feeling lightweight and derivative. Even its final season stumbled when story arcs were wrapped up in the previous year, while the aborted Crusade and Legend of the Rangers spin-offs distilled much of the show’s fireworks but little of its creativity or elegance. It was the overall story that the viewers cared about, not the pit-stops along the way. Now only the pit stops remain to be visited.

Despite all this, jms has just announced at Comicon that WB have green-lit new Babylon 5 episodes straight-to-DVD, each centring around a particular character. It’s a potentially intriguing idea, but after all this time the question is whether jms can ever recapture the show’s old strengths in a short anthology format. His comic scripts show that his writing continues to improve in leaps and bounds, particularly in the dialogue department, but his real ace in the hole remains his plotting; that knack for pulling the rug out from under you. Even when you know it’s coming, he never fails to surprise you. The flipside of this is that his build-up still tends towards the derivative and by-the-numbers. He can churn out a decent story with some snappy dialogue, but most of what makes his writing effective is not demonstrated in a single instalment.

Needless to say I’ll be viewing the new material when it becomes available, and I’ll be happy to have my fears proved unfounded. But I do wonder why, having lambasted Trek for lumbering on past its sell by date, he’s determined to make exactly the same mistake with his own series.

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