Why a television show and an ICBM are the same thing
I’ll open this up with a disclaimer: I am a nitpicky geek.
Producing a television show, weirdly, has a lot in common with designing a ballistic missile. In the minds of every missile designer exists the perfect missile. This perfect ballistic munition can carry an infinitely large warhead, at an infinite speed, over an infinite distance. This perfect missile will never miss its target, ever.
However, when the missile leaves the mind of its designer, this veritable Apollo’s Arrow becomes subject to the physical laws of our universe. Anything infinite is right out. Travelling at more than a few tens of thousands of kilometres an hour, or delivering more than a hundred petajoules of energy to your target is unlikely. Actually, the further you delve into missile design the more it becomes a game of compromise. Throw-weight is a measure how much payload a missile can carry. Maximizing throw-weight is the goal of every missile designer and the objective of any compromise.
Let’s say that you are a missile designer. You have been asked to increase the throw-weight of a ballistic missile by your superior. You think “aha, easy!” and you come back to your supervisor with a proposal to just put a bigger engine on the missile to increase its throw weight. Let’s consider your engine proposal:
You need to be able to fuel this bigger engine. You can (1.) increase the quality of your fuel, although this in turn requires superior distillation, chilling and transportation infrastructure. This might not be economical or practical; quality control at every stage of missile construction is a nontrivial issue. Or you can (2.) add more fuel. Adding more fuel means more weight in both fuel tanks and plumbing. Ultimately you might not eke out any performance gain at all.*
“So what’s the connection with television?” you ask.
The creator of a television show has to make similar choices: He or she wants to increase the quality of their show, maximize the audience and minimize costs. Achieving any of those three goals requires compromising in the other two areas. If you increase quality you increase budget. If you increase the audience you (may) decrease quality. If you lower the budget you lower the quality.
I’m confident that someone smarter than me has expressed this in an elegant algorithm before going onto author a successful pop-culture book which relates this in a laid-back anecdotal manner to yonder lay audience.
So let’s take Fringe, a procedural science fiction show, spiritual successor to The X-Files, currently well into its fourth season on America prime time television.
Fringe has made a point of altering its dynamic from season to season:
- In season one we were introduced to Fringe Division and the Pattern.
- In season two we were shown that a war between universes was brewing, and that a parallel Earth was out to get us.
- In season three, all hell broke loose, and we crossed back and forth between universes on a seemingly daily basis.
- And now in season four, we’ve shunted into an alternate timeline where one of the main characters died as a child.
Beneath this is a threefold formula that hasn’t really changed: You have your random monster of the week story, your random mad scientist of the week story and the odd, interspersed episode that advances the overarching storyline.
It’s become a bit stale.
At its heart, you have a cadre of fantastic actors who are really comfortable in their roles. It’s worth tuning just to watch the dynamics between the three leads, Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble – and they’ve rightly won awards for these roles. There’s solid quality there. The writing? Not so much. They have to wrap up the monster/scientist of the week story in time for a vignette advancing that season’s storyline. This is getting old. And it gets worse. Very occasionally some of the technical details are flat-out wrong (this is the nitpicker speaking). I’m five episodes into the seasons and we’ve had two mad scientists and a monster. Really, how many damn unethical scientists are out there? Should we just go and pack them into concents already?
However, for the reasons given above, I can’t complain too much. I don’t so much understand the difficulties, as I understand that there are difficulties in balancing a show. But hey. Maybe we could change the formula up more. Show us more of the supposed brewing global crisis. Set dressing permitting, visit somewhere else in America or the world.
Eight hundred words. I’m spent.
(If you want to read more on this topic, then I urge you to purchase or download (free PDF) a copy of Space Weapons, Earth Wars. This excellent monograph on space weapons includes a lengthy meditation on throw-weight.