Saturday, February 22, 2014

Continuity in TV Shows - Part One - A Look Through The Decades

by Ken Parker

What is continuity first off? It can mean a number of things. Is a character wearing the same shirt he did in the previous shot? Is their hair the same style when shooting the same scene months later? Would that character do that in that situation? If they did that 3 episodes ago, wouldn’t they be able to do this in this episode? If they learned this in season 2, why are they now doing that in season 4? There are a lot of things that continuity can be and for fans who watch their favorites again and again, continuity is even more important. The following article will look at a few examples but will focus on Doctor Who and Space: 1999. Both of these shows are unique in the discussion of continuity. Doctor Who, being a serial, always had strong continuity and has had help from fans and writers in keeping the Doctor Who universe relatively intact.Space: 1999 is a prime example of 70's TV without continuity but shows those flaws more obviously with a second season riddled with change. As with Doctor Who, fiction and ongoing products over the years have patched up many of the 'errors' seemingly made within their continuities.

Television today thrives on continuity. Most series are littered with references and clues that will eventually mean more to audiences down the line. A well written series can have the beginnings of plot threads and revelations for stories or seasons ahead of time that add to the pay off moments. Sometimes the formation of ideas have a conclusion already designed while other times writers will take these ‘throw away lines’ and make them more relevant later on. This may be by design or decided on later down the line. Fans and viewers love continuity these days because they can pick up on threads of plot that will eventually become important as time goes on. These story seeds can blossom into great ideas or are never dealt with again. It gives the writer options to try out different ideas.

In Babylon 5 it is mentioned early on how Babylon 4 just vanished years earlier. This was not directly dealt with right away but became an important storyline a few seasons later. Was this a throw away line or did the writers always have in mind what exactly was going to happen or perhaps they knew they would deal with it if the show lasted a few seasons.

Shows are more like soap operas with continuing plot lines. In some cases the stories are just one long story with breaks in between each hour. Other times the episodes have individual plots but with reminders that there is a bigger picture at work.

Supernatural has a single plot thread that underlines the entire season and from time to time episodes deal just with this. Other times the ‘monster of the week’ episode is seen with a mention or two during the story just to remind viewers that the big picture has not been forgotten.

Doctor Who does this all the time. A stand alone story is seen and in the final few seconds a revelation happens to remind us to not forget what is coming. In the excellent episode “Midnight” the story deals with the plot perfectly but annoyingly in the middle we see one of these reminders as Rose’s face appears on a TV screen for no real good reason. She is trying to contact the Doctor and it makes little sense that she would appear on that screen on board the shuttle vehicle. Still, it wasn’t really for the plot, it was to give the audiences a little easter egg reminder that something big has yet to happen in the season. Sometimes these reminders are jarring and annoying but I digress.

Doctor Who is all about change and regeneration and for factual information, has remained intact for the most part. A show that lasts that long is bound to have tons of problems coupled with the fact that it is about time travel, doubles the potential 'errors'. Fans have either ignored or addressed these things and the new writers have also tackled them from time to time. Thankfully Doctor Who has not found a previous story and completely changed its meaning. Well, that is not entirely true. In “Remembrance of the Daleks” its is shown to viewers that the Doctor's original flight to Earth in “An Unearthly Child” was about the hand of Omega. This was cool at the time for me but I can see also being annoyed at the re-writing of that first story to fit into a newer story.

Doctor Who has always had continuity as it was in serial format in the 60’s. Each half hour ended on a cliffhanger and there were even logical continuations in between stories. But most shows of the 60’s through 80’s were not that strict with continuity. Series focused more on individual episodes and not confusing casual
viewers with massive amounts of continuity. The problem with most shows these days is that unless you watched last weeks episode, you are lost story-wise. Older shows avoided that problem by not having as much connection. This would make, in theory, more stand alone stories and I would argue, more memorable ones as well. These days episodes are less stand alone because of these linking scenes. You cannot afford to miss an episode. The thought years earlier was that producers and networks counted on people casually tuning in and being able to enjoy what they were seen and not being confused by threads stemming back weeks or years earlier.

Space: 1999 is an interesting example of continuity in the 70’s. On the surface it was just like any other series. It had continuity to a point. People acted the same, they were the same clothes and did the same things. Things looked and functioned the same. But that is where continuity ended. One of the most important things about continuity is character development and character understanding. People learn from mistakes (usually) and remember things from the past. Space: 1999 had none of that. If they learned how to steer the moon away from danger (blowing up charges to cause shock-waves – just take my word for it) then a few episodes later they would have forgotten all about it.

Characters never made reference to the past. “Launch Pad 4 is still under repair from last weeks attack by those aliens.” “Why is our Main Mission sitting on top of the base, vulnerable to alien attack?” “couldn’t we try to reverse engineer those alien guns and make more powerful weapons? A story was all inclusive. Most series were like this with an occasional returning character or villain. In Space: 1999 there was no ongoing villain and so beyond watching the first story and seeing how the Moon got free from Earth’s orbit, you do not need to see anything in any order. That is unheard of these days. You have to watch them in order while back then, not so much.

This is annoying to people who are used to continuity. New audiences will watch Space: 1999 and think “Wait a minute, they just ran into a similar problem 4 episodes ago, why don’t they remember how they got out of it? Fans are also annoyed because we see the stories over and over and those glaring moments are more obvious.

Of course fans make up the gaps. They always do whether it in their minds, defending their shows or in fan fiction. In a few episodes of Space:1999 the Alphans seem to know what planet they are approaching. Where would they have gotten that info? They are in unknown space and have no way of knowing unless they stumbled across one of their deep space probes that might have gathered up this info while traveling the universe – aha – they did in “Voyager’s Return”. That access to material off its computer banks could answer a few things throughout the series.

In Doctor Who, there is a temporal grace feature in the TARDIS that appears when the writer needs to prevent someone from being hurt in the TARDIS. This is then promptly forgotten when it hinders another story. Why didn’t it work that time? Most have been broken. That’s it!!
Fandom will defend their shows. Just ask me about problems with Space: 1999 and I can probably come up with an answer. Why did the moon travel so far away from Earth so quickly? That was never answered in the series but over the years fans have concluded that a space warp or rift was torn open by the explosion and sent the moon into it. Seems plausible and was dealt with in a novelization of the series as well as some other more recent works based on the series.

Fan input is really important with perceived continuity and for people who love their shows, it is a way that they can accept mistakes with their series. Sometimes these can be silly answers not taken seriously. I remember a convention one time when Michael Dorn (Worf on Star Trek The Next Generation) was asked why character's his son, Alexander, was so much older between two seasons and Dorn answered that Klingon children age faster. This tongue and cheek answer was great and most of the audience laughed but a few fans went ”oh, so that is why!!”

Speaking of Klingons, one of the biggest rifts in continuity in Star Trek was the changing of the Klingons in Star Trek, the Motion Picture. The change was something that fans got used to quickly. The reason of the change was that it was decided to make the Klingons more alien and they had the money for make-up. That’s it. There does not need to be an explanation. But, there is because the fans will complain. Then in the Deep Space Nine episode “More Troubles, More Tribbles,” the first time a character made reference to the change as the ‘human’ Klingons were in that episode. Worf just embarrassingly said he didn’t want to talk about it. HA. The best explanation possible. That is all we need, right? No, of course eventually Star Trek did deal with it and they did not have to but in order to fix the continuity, they had to take care of it.

Space: 1999 is an interesting case study for continuity because of its season 2 and all the changes that happened. A new producer was brought on board and made sweeping changes in order to revitalize the show. See my previous articleabout the changes.

Anyhow, none of these changes were explained. None. Shows do recast from time to time. The Six Million Dollar Man went through several Rudy Wells without mention. This happened. In the case of Space: 1999 new characters were introduced and others vanished. Again, not that unusual in most series of that time period but given that Moonbase Alpha was an enclosed setting, its not like characters can move to California or be transferred to another city. No effort was made to explain the new characters, the new uniforms, the new setting and so on.

The soap opera like continuity became more common in the 90's. Many series are based on this. Shows like Lost and Orphan Black and Game of Thrones are examples of longer tales made up over many parts. They make little sense unless you watch all of them. Shows like Almost Human, Intelligence and Person of Interest are more stand alone with individual stories each week with plot threads inserted to keep some of the big picture ideas fresh.

These types of stories are a huge evolution from the usual shows of the 80's and earlier. Unless they were soaps or serials, like Doctor Who, continuity was not as important. Whether you prefer continuity or not, it is interesting to see how TV shows have changed.

Next time we will talk about what fans and writers do to fix continuity errors.

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