Save The Cheerleader, Save The British Television Industry? That seems to be the claim of a recent speech by the BBC's Controller of Fiction Jane Tranter, in which she pointed to SF shows like Doctor Who and Heroes as examples of the future of everything good about television drama.
Talking to the Royal Television Society at the start of this week, Tranter spoke about the need for television drama to be brave, bold and unafraid to be popular and embrace its origins... Traits she saw personified in the corporation's flagship Doctor Who and its outgoing producer, Russell T. Davies:
Russell T Davies has proved that with an early Saturday evening piece of big sci-fi entertainment that has landed some of the most original, profound, talked-about and touched-by-genius television drama that I've seen. Part of his brilliance lies in his skills as a show-runner... Russell T Davies said something the other month in an interview he gave that really struck a chord with me. He said "I think it's really hard to say you love television. It's easy to stand up and say I love opera, I love film, I love theatre. And people say 'Oh marvellous, it's quite right.' But it's hard to say you love television. If you do, you sound trivial, superficial, and I'm not. I'm clever. And I know what I'm talking about, and I think it's monstrously unsung as an art form..."
And not for the first time (and unquestionably not for the last) I totally agree with him. Television drama is an art form and it is frequently undervalued, not by audiences, but by how we write, comment and talk about it. Unlike theatre or film, television drama doesn't have its own specialist critics, commentators, consciences and guardians, who commit their thoughts and observations about it in a singularly dedicated and therefore expert way. Which is disappointing because television drama is worth talking about and obsessing over. Certainly it obsesses me. It's an art form unique in its power to fuel the national conversation.
Also singled out for praise was another SF show, Heroes, for the scope of its storytelling:
The ambitious spec of Heroes is a clear role-model – as, in a different way, is the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. If NBC, an inevitably relatively conservative US network, is prepared not only to set a popular mainstream returning drama series all over the world, but to cast a character who speaks throughout in Japanese, then I'm sure, with your help, that we can think bigger.
When the head of BBC drama realizes that SF and fantasy shows are not only not shows to be embarrassed about, but rather shows that demonstrate the best of what the medium has to offer, it feels as if some kind of milestone has been reached. Now all we have to do is convince Emmy voters of the value of Battlestar Galactica...