Realisations from television last week

Quite a few realisations this week, probably brought about through watching too much television (and reading my own news pages).

Realisation 1: House really is Sherlock Holmes

Realisation 2: CSI is still a far cleverer and better show than any of the other CSI spin-offs

Realisation 3: Some shows can be remade, some shows – particularly ones from the early 80s – are too much a product of their time to be remade.

Realisation 1: House really is Sherlock Holmes

Not strictly a new realisation, since I’ve bleated on about it before in my “oh look at me, I’m so clever” way. But House’s Sherlock Holmes-ian musings have often been restricted to working out what disease his patient has – no surprise, since Holmes was based on real life deductive doctor Joseph Bell.

However, what’s notable about House is he always cocks up his diagnoses of the main plague-carriers in each week’s episode. It’s only when he’s on clinic duty that he can spot what’s wrong in an instant. Even then, his revelations are clinical – knowing that someone has wooga-wooga dysentry because of the angle of their little finger isn’t that impressive because it still means nothing at the end of it.

Last week’s episode (and to a lesser extent, the episode of the previous week) really made it clear that the producers are now trying to make House a Holmes of everyday-life observations as well to show us just how smart he is, and they’re doing it very impressively. His deductions about his new students were classic Holmes – take something that seems unclear, pick up a small clue and then use deductive logic to work out the mystery, no matter how improbable the conclusion. Really very clever.

Realisation 2: CSI is still a far cleverer and better show than any of the other CSI spin-offs

Again, not really a new realisation, and not a particularly great one for anyone’s who watched the various CSIs. But Thursday’s episode had clever writing, was funny and allowed the show to mock itself in a way that CSI: Miami never, ever would. Could you really imagine the Carusobot playing games? I don’t think so.

Realisation 3: Some shows can be remade, some shows – particularly ones from the early 80s – are too much a product of their time to be remade.

This was prompted by the announcement that Survivors was going to be remade by the BBC. It occurred to me that even though the original show was very much a product of the 70s, with its obsessions with a dystopian future (cf Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Rollerball) and the self-sufficiency fad (cf The Good Life), its theme – “mankind gets wiped out by a virus leaving a few survivors to try to cope by themselves” – would still hold up today, in part thanks to various terrorists threats in the real world, as well as bird flu, etc, but also because of things like 24 and 28 Days Later.

That got me to wondering if many other telefantasy shows from other periods could be remade easily. Now some other shows from the 70s like The Tomorrow People or Ace of Wands could easily come back in a different form, since there was nothing in them that was part of the period (apart from the fashions, but they weren’t integral). Quatermass, a classic 50s, has already made at least one comeback without much difficulty in the live BBC4 remake of The Quatermass Experiment. And let’s not forget the swinging 60s’ Doctor Who, of course, as well as The Strange Report which is really just an older version of CSI/Millennium.

But now that Knight Rider‘s coming back as well, would the various other early 80s ‘hardware’ shows be able to come back so easily? Take Airwolf, which is already being considered for movie treatment. That was a product of a very specific time: an age when technology was considered to be, on the whole, a good thing; and a time when there was a cold war, with very little actual conflict that could expose the difficulties and complexities of warfare and which seemed to have a clear-cut good and evil.

Like Knight Rider, it was an age when “futuristic” was like Max Headroom – just 20 seconds into the future. With PCs giving the kind of raw computing power to home users that previously was only available via mainframes a few years earlier, it seemed like indestructible, talking cars, Mach 1+ helicopters, et al could be here in just a few years time – we were just looking at the equivalent of some Silicon Valley start-ups who had hit on before the big guys.

Now, of course, we know that that’s not all just a few years away and it’ll all be very, very difficult to achieve. It’s not just science fiction – it’s fantasy. We might as well have cars turning into Transformers, which is what’s happening with Knight Rider.

Could we have a show about a near-unstoppable CIA helicopter in the possession of a lone individual and his buddy? In the age of Guantanamo and near-zero support for the very messy Iraq war? Probably not. Stringfellow Hawke would have suffered extreme rendition in about five minutes. And any show that depicted a helicopter that could easily evade any missile, etc, would get an uneasy reaction from people who know all too well that helicopters can get shot down very easily, no matter how much armour plating you clad them in.

Blue Thunder‘s an interesting special case, though. The movie, Blue Thunder, made it quite clear that the technology of Blue Thunder was currently in use and its civil rights’ implications were scary. The TV show, however, was far more happy about the idea of helicopters that could silently spy on us through walls or from 200 feet up and then kill us with mini-guns while we were out shopping if they felt like it.

Would it work nowadays? Maybe. What’s more interesting is whether it would have worked six years ago. With the PATRIOT act just coming in, the idea of a police/FBI helicopter as part of a government surveillance team tracking terrorists would have probably gone down a storm (although Threat Matrix didn’t manage to cash in on the untapped “escapist conservatives” in the audience, so maybe not). With the pendulum swinging away from “necessary loss of certain freedoms” and back towards “those who give up any freedoms probably don’t deserve them, so we musn’t or the terrorists will win”, I’m not sure the show would go down so well now.

So it turns out that if a show once had a particular time and a place, so its remake is likely to need time and a place that has to be picked carefully.

And that’s the realisations for this week.