Morgue’s long study of seasons 1-3 of Buffy the Wampire Slayer provides a fairly clear set of methods they use for creating conflict, which I somewhat simply express as Myth-As-Metaphor: the ordinary concerns of life are horrifically recast into literally monstrous expressions. My go-to example being “Ted”, in which the challenge of a new step-father is translated into one who’s a literal monster that must be destroyed rather than be allowed to interfere with the family structure. Someone posted a rather good refutation to this example in a comment somewhere but I can’t find it so we’ll just move on. The point is that the stakes in a Buffy narrative are ordinary human stakes of friendship, academic success, social acceptance, and so forth. The reason Warren is Buffy’s most terrifying foe is also the reason he’s a failure within the storytelling paradigm of the world: he’s really not a metaphor at all. I think this is a structural feature of young adult fiction, and why it often feels paradoxically more adult than most adult television that either becomes purely procedural or turns into pure melodrama. What’s the big personal or moral story at the centre of each episode of NCIS? There isn’t one – it’s pure procedural surface with just enough charisma to trick you into somnolent acquiescence to its lazy structure. What makes televisual Science Fiction interesting is how it can’t or doesn’t use any of these well-understood conflict paradigms – it builds its own rules and then plays by them.
The SF show I’ve been watching most recently is Stargate Atlantis, while also refreshing the odd episode of the original show. Both shows are informally structured by the conflict between the US Air Force and some imaginably superior alien threat – the Goa’uld, the Ori, Replicators, and the Wraith. The basic structure for every episode is similar – an unknown thing is encountered, it turns out the thing is a threat to the team/world, a plan is devised and seems to be going well until there’s a reverse, after a moment of tension an off-the-wall solution is devised which delivers a timely victory. That structuralist summary is as uselessly reductive as it sounds, but the point is that in general the story hinges I’ve identified above have no wider context or reality outside of the momentary dramatic needs of the show, because we are not supposed to connect these threats with our own experience. This structure allows the characters to perpetually come into the story as plucky underdogs who triumph despite everything – a one-note emotional language for the show, which underwrites its jingoistic colonial fantasy.
The Season 3 finale distills this formula to its purest form, to give greater emphasis to a story arc completion. The plan to defeat the Replicators is to create a blob of super-attractive replicator building-blocks, which will cause all of the other replicator building-blocks to disassemble from their useful shapes and form a super-mass in a concept akin to critical mass in nuclear fission. Like nuclear fission, the final phase needs a little help- and they plan to blow up existing power infrastructure to provide that containing/initiating blast. Of course, there’s a snag – the growing pool/body of the replicators has disrupted the power grid that would allow the explosions they had planned to work. There is no pre-existing reality or information that makes this a predictable problem, and it corresponds to no observable reality, it’s simply a line of dialogue inserted to say “things are bad”. The success or failure of the plan also has no effect on the emotional reality experienced by the characters. Win or lose, the characters’ fundamental positions in the story space and their relationships with each other will be unaffected.
In order for this to have any emotional valence, the audience must completely buy the premise of the specific actions going on. We are once again faced with Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra – a police procedural might be “real” inasmuch as it mimics real-world procedural activities and is based around real-world activities (murder, grieving, etc). Urban fantasies sublimate this kind of procedural into a mythic framework – vampires are rapists, etc – retaining a one-step symbolic equivalence that allows these dramas to be interpreted back into realistic terms. In Stargate there is often no practical or plausible connection to a reality we actually experience, making it a story simulacrum. The question is: why does this work? How can this show have sustained 15-odd seasons while “better” shows burn out years before?
The strategy is twofold. In the first instance, the drama needs interesting and likeable characters – there is a fair amount of charisma required for this kind of drama to work. By embedding characters that you care about in situations that are orthogonal to their emotional lives you can generate the kind of emotional state-change that Robin Laws explains in Hamlet’s Hit Points without risking any of the core character features. Compare the amount of change in Stargate‘s characters compared to Buffy – the characters in Buffy are always in a state of slight change, so that while their essential characteristics, their defining characteristics, are broadly recognisable they are not the same. There is no noticeable change in the core Stargate characters. This means that if the formula of action and charisma is more-or-less right at the start of the show, there’s really no reason it can’t run forever as the fundamentals don’t really change. The kind of simulacrum of conflict in Season 1 is basically the same as the simulacrum of conflict in Season 7.
Stargate disguises this complete disintegration of meaningful story events by building a repertoire of technobabble that grows and remains consistently applied – but that consistency does not change the fundamentally arbitrary nature of the situations which the characters face. By keeping a close tally of the conflict-generating events, and by reusing, reframing, and recycling them, it creates an impression of story progress, even as objectively nothing changes in the circumstances of the characters. It is the perfect formula for syndicated storytelling.
What I respect most about Stargate is this absolutely precise and clinical control over story structure and individual story elements, where these completely arbitrary and meaningless conflicts can create an emotional valence and yet leave the characters essentially unchanged so that the action can be virtually perpetual. For me, Stargate is the shark of the televisual world – perfectly evolved to be perfectly efficient within its paradigm.