Last Summer my husband broke out his complete collection of Stargate SG-1 DVDs and watched them in order, not skipping one episode. Stargate SG-1 was a series based on the motion picture Stargate, which originally starred Kurt Russell and James Spader. The series recast the two leads and had greater success on the small screen than in the theater. Stargate SG-1 aired for a remarkable ten years from 1997 to 2007. The series was first shown on the cable channel Showtime in and then later on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Over the couple of months it took to view all 214 episodes and the two films made for DVD, we not only saw Colonel Jack O'Neil and his SG-1 team battle the wicked Apophis and his army of Jaffa, the relentless Replicators, and the overbearing Ori, we also got to learn in very vast detail the lives of the team outside of their work lives. We learned O'Neil's pain of losing his son and his joy of fishing, our hearts were tugged as we witnessed many of Samantha Carter's failed relationships, we learned how Daniel Jackson lost his parents and how he was perceived by his college classmates, and we watched as former Jaffa, Teal'c, attempted to fit in with Earth's lifestyle. Although not every episode was memorable, I came to the realization that we, the sci-fi fan community, are being shortchanged these days when it comes to science fiction on television.
Beginning around 2007, just as Stargate SG-1 was finishing its run, the Sci-Fi Channel (now known as Syfy), and other cable channels started to cut episode orders of their series. Instead of getting 20 to 22 episodes a season, shows got cut to 18, and currently Syfy series like Defiance and Lost Girl get 13 episodes each and summer favorite, Falling Skies on TNT, has only 10 episodes per season. These short season series, although well liked, leave a lot to be desired.
One of the major problems about shortened seasons is that it takes sometimes over a year to get new episodes. Last Summer, my husband and never missed an episode of Defiance, but I can barely recall the characters and the major plot points now that it is about to start its second season. In order to get back up to speed, it will be necessary to binge watch the show. When sci-fi series have a longer season arc, it can be broken up and aired throughout the year, bridging the gap between seasons. Perhaps many people will not even bother to watch season two because they have forgotten about the show or lost interest. Even with the advent of Facebook and other social sites, it takes a lot to keep a fan base going strong.
Another negative to shorter seasons is that series writers do not have much room to be creative and branch out from their main story arcs. Sci-fi series like the Star Trek franchise, which had between 24 to 26 episodes a season had an opportunity to go beyond their core story plots and characters and show different aspects of their imaginary world. If Star Trek: The Next Generation had been relegated to only 13 episodes a season, we would have most likely never seen Captain Picard play his Holodeck alter-ego Dixon Hill in episodes like "The Big Goodbye" or been charmed by Data's version of Sherlock Holmes in "Elementary, My Dear Data". Star Trek: Voyager would most likely been void of the "Captain Proton" episodes since the writers being relegated to plotting out 13 episodes would have had to base most of their storylines about getting back to the Alpha Quadrant. The myriad of sub-plots and character arcs have helped Star Trek, as a whole, to endure over the years even though no incarnation has been on the television since 2005.
One of the largest issues with having short seasons is that most of the characters do not have the time they need to develop and grow. The bulk of the episodes have to be about moving the plot forward, therefore in order to keep the audience interested, most short series creators these days focus their shows on which characters will live or die during the season. Take for instance the highly popular AMC series "The Walking Dead". Regular viewers have got accustomed to anticipating major cast deaths near the middle and during the last episode of the season, and when they die, Twitter and Facebook accounts go nuts for a brief time, then it is back to watching and waiting for the next slaughter of characters. It is hard to get attached to a character when you know that they may be dead after the commercial break, and even if they have been around for a while, how well did you, as the viewer get to know them? There is just not time to write those little memorable moments that make characters endearing and enduring to the audience. Even though "The Walking Dead" is popular now, will it still be a staple in households ten years after the series is over? What was Rick's wife name again?* Did you have to think about it? How about the Star Trek: The Next Generation fans out there? Do you remember the name of Captain Picard's fish?** I bet you do.
The television industry as a whole has suffered financially in the last ten years due to the loss of viewers because of new media and the antiquated Nielsen rating system, which helps to determine the cost of advertising by a show's viewership. Since there has not been a system put in place to determine viewership of television series that are streamed on the internet, the cut in advertising dollars has led to lower budgets for networks and cable stations, and hence, shorter television episode seasons. Sci-fi fans may never again have the opportunity to enjoy new episodes of a show that last months instead of weeks. We may have to continue to rely on fan fiction and the occasional comic book or novels to expand the universe our favorite shows are based in.
*On The Walking Dead, Rick's wife's name was Lori.
**Captain Picard's fish was named Livingston.