When season premieres presage season finales

It’s been a mighty long time, but I’m back. Blogging time should (he says tentatively) open up a bit more in the coming weeks, with the end of the semester. Welcome in particular to those of you who stumbled upon my name in the Film Comment piece on David Bordwell’s blog; sorry for the lack of fresh product. I’m going to do bit more remodeling on the interface in the coming weeks as well, so stay tuned.

What concerns me these days are new seasons of three of my current favorite series (note: no hedging over the word “favorite”). Lost‘s fourth season started back in February (and they’re currently on strike-affected hiatus till April 24); both Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who began their respective fourth seasons this past weekend. I had intended to blog about anticipation as a mode of media engagement, but instead (since the seasons have started) I’d like to talk about serial narrative.

I’ve blogged before about the problems of long television seasons, i.e., what Jason Mittell has beautifully dubbed the “infinity model.” Each of these shows has been able to delimit “infinity” in a variety of ways. Last spring, the executive producers of Lost negotiated an end to their series: spring 2010. This means that (counting the 2008 episodes already aired) there are forty more Lost episodes to come over the next two and a half seasons. Similarly, Battlestar Galactica will wrap up this season; the first ten episodes will run this spring, but the strike likely delayed the release of the last ten episodes till the fall (this has yet to be confirmed). As for Doctor Who, only three bumper-length “specials” will run scattered throughout 2009, followed by a full season of thirteen episodes in 2010. While some fans have panicked at this news, it is intended to become the usual pattern of production from that point forward, in order to keep the demanding series and its personnel fresh.

I bring all this up because most fans are going into these new seasons knowing that “the end” (or, in DW’s case, an “end”) is nigh. That is, each series will end at a known point in the near future. Unlike virtually every other scripted television series in history (with some important exceptions, most occurring within the last decade or so), these series are embarking on an unknown narrative trajectory with a known terminus. Again, in DW’s case, it’s more complicated: the series isn’t ending, but the way it has been produced to date is. And it’s more complicated than that as well, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Lost made this shift in last year’s season finale, when the familiar flashbacks were replaced with flash-forwards, i.e., glimpses at the lives of some of the characters after their departure from the island. This move neatly cleaved the entire series run in half, and signalled movement to a new narrative problematic. The question of “who were these people?” has become “what happened to them?” The foregrounding of the Oceanic Six (i.e., the only six characters who “survived” Oceanic 815 and returned to civilization and became celebrities), coupled with the addition of several new characters (brought on board the freighter that made contact with the regulars at the end of last season) has provided the fuel for this problematic. Interestingly, each episode thus far (there are still five to go this season) has prompted even more questions. For every answer that’s given (e.g., what happened to Michael) loads of questions are asked (e.g., what’s the deal with the polar bear skeleton in Tunisia?).

Thus, the knowledge that viewers must bring to bear on the material increases, but moves on at the same time. That is, answered questions or cut-off plotlines (e.g,. goodbye Danielle and Karl…probably) can be filed away, opening up conceptual space for the new questions. Lost has done this all throughout, of course. However, it’s new, denser narrative structure (16 straight episodes, rather than 25 scattered across 40 weeks), plus eight-month hiatuses, means that the experience of watching each season unfold will be even more “intense” than usual. That is, more narrative significance packed into fewer episodes, engaged with in a shorter amount of time.

(Side note: yes, DVD box set viewers have been able to do this for years. What’s interesting now is that this mode of focused intense engagement is occurring more and more in scheduled runs of series on their networks)

For Battlestar Galactica fans, the stakes are even higher: these episodes are it. Twenty and out. Moreover, there’s no flashforwards (at least straightforwardly). There’s no way to effectively predict where this story is going. The series has excelled at jaw-dropping season finales all the way through, episodes that both culminate their season arcs and explode into a completely different narrative direction. Arguably, the Season 3 finale was the most explosive of them all, revealing four of the “final five” cylons, acquitting Gaius Baltar, bringing back Kara Thrace from the dead, revealing that Earth does indeed exist, and working in Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.”

The first episode back (after almost a year) picked up exactly where events left off and didn’t disappoint, moving each of these plot points along (including the Dylan song) and raising the stakes accordingly. What’s most extraordinary is how this is working without resorting to genre cliche, and without drawing up an explicit puzzle (like in Lost). Instead, we’re left with bits and pieces of meaning to chew on, with very little stable ground. I like to think this is how both the surviving humans and the cylons are perceiving their worlds as well: that all attempts thus far to move on have either failed (e.g., New Caprica) or have gone unpredictably awry (Tigh’s a cylon!).

This pushes the series out of the literal realm and into something more challenging, more disturbing, and more uncertain. The various strains of hybridity presented (all twelve cylon models, Baltar’s vision of Six, undead Kara, Hera (and maybe Aaron), the cylon/human hybrids, the animal consciousness of the centurions and raiders, the failing Colonial state, etc.) make any notion of a core or foundation untenable, and increasingly so. This material would be compelling in any medium, but on television-that seemingly reliable technology of modernity and civilization-its fissures and wounds are felt all the more. You can’t put it down. You can’t walk out of the theater. You can watch something afterwards, or turn off the screen. But you know it’ll be back. And yet it will still end as well, within the next eight months.

Finally, Doctor Who continues to offer kind of “annual saga” mode of narrative, in that each season has a central thematic, as well as a growing narrative problematic, that nibbles away at the corners of early episodes before building up to increasingly explosive finales. In practice, this means that while the entire series run is interconnected, individual seasons are meant to be experienced as one thirteen-episode saga (I’m leaving out the Christmas episodes in this calculus, glorious though they are, as they’ve functioned thus far as variously “interstitial” between the main action in the seasons).

Twenty-nine episodes into the David Tennant era, and we’re starting to see the emotional cracks in this particular Doctor blossom. He was put through the wringer last season well enough, but not as much as his companion Martha Jones. This season looks to compound these emotions and relationships several-fold, as not only Martha, but, incredibly, Rose Tyler (marooned in a parallel universe way back in Series Two’s finale “Doomsday”) are somehow returning this year, in addition to the now-regular companion Donna Noble (seen previously as one-off team-up in “The Runaway Bride” in 2006). Unlike Lost, which literally screams the questions and answers at us, and BSG, which plunges us into uncharted conceptual waters, DW’s real “big questions” are actually quite intimate. For despite all the copious (and extremely well-conveyed) action and epic scale, this is basically a series about a very, very lonely person, and the emotional (as well as physical) damage he leaves in his wake. And, based on the last few minutes of the Series Four opener, “Partners In Crime,” his life is about to get very, very complicated indeed.

The “end,” here, ominously foreshadowed in the already released title of this year’s final episode (“Journey’s End”), refers to the seeming end of this year’s particular theme, and I suspect, the buildup to the end of Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, probably in the last 2009 special, which then would usher in an Eleventh Doctor in a full series in 2010. But that’s all speculation. The primary advantage of Doctor Who‘s narrative structure is that it allows a relatively wide range of storytelling styles (everything from comedy to horror to SF to domestic drama) which collectively, and subtly, build upon an overarching story. A story that then actually comes to a conclusion as episode thirteen ends, while still leaving plenty of bruises and mysteries to propel the next series.

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