Three series currently showing on UK TV have varied SFF elements, and make for some interesting contrasts.
FlashForward is a US series, based on a 1999 novel of the same name by Canadian author Robert J Sawyer. It is set on a present-day Earth in which (almost) everyone blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds, during which they appeared to see visions of what would happen to them six months into the future. I haven't read the book and was unable to watch the first series (the channel it was shown on not then being available in my area) but came in on the two-part "special" and the start of series two. Sadly I didn't get much further since, although I was aware of the basic premise, the second series is packed so full of references to events and people in the first series that I found watching it an exercise in frustration. I gather from other commentators, however, that the series suffers from being far too drawn out (with 22 hour-long episodes in the first series alone) which means that the concept becomes seriously diluted.
This raises an interesting question concerning the optimum length of such series and whether or not it is important to try to keep the pacing and structure of the novel. Generally speaking, feature films don't have enough time to do justice to most novels, since they try to pack a story which typically takes over five hours to read (assuming 350+ pages) into a couple of hours. Long series like FlashForward go to the opposite extreme, stretching the plot to several times its original length. One consequence is that the focus may shift from the science-fictional premise to the activities and interrelationships of the characters. This might be acceptable if the characters are strong and their relationships develop in an interesting way, but that doesn't seem to be the case with FlashForward, judging both by my own brief exposure to it and the comments of others.
Ashes to Ashes is now in its third and last series. I reviewed the first two on this blog on 25 June 2009, so I won't go into the background again. This time the mood is darker, with the threatening figure of Jim Keats, a police officer tasked with reviewing Gene Hunt's (Philip Glenister) department, on a mission to discredit Hunt. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), thrown back from the present to 1983, becomes obsessed with the death of Sam Tyler, the former throwback in Life on Mars, and discovers evidence that Hunt was involved. However, the focus for much of the series has been on 1983 policing, with little evidence of the desperation to return to her young daughter Drake showed in the first two series; the only mysterious element being her repeated visions of a wounded policeman. Flashes of brilliant comedy are still there, however, one being the incorporation of a real-life incident, the vandalism of the garden developed for the children's TV show Blue Peter. This is "revealed" as being the consequence of a messy arrest by Gene Hunt and his team, who afterwards are shown glumly watching the actual 1983 TV programme which described the vandalism by persons unknown! Viewers are promised that the series will end by explaining what has been happening and wrapping up all the loose ends. It will be fascinating to see how they do this, but also a sad day - however, all good things must come to an end.
The Prisoner was a late-1960s British TV series concerning a former secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan, who also devised the story and wrote several episodes) who wakes up in a mysterious village (the actual picture-postcard folly village of Portmerion in North Wales) from which he is prevented from leaving while those in charge try to find out why he resigned. The residents all have numbers rather than names and live a surreal existence which, along with the bizarre attempts to break the hero's resistance, provide a substantial fantasy element to what is ostensibly a spy thriller. (In this respect it is not dissimilar to another famous but lighter and more comedic series from the same period, The Avengers, in its definitive third series starring Diana Rigg). I saw the The Prisoner when it first appeared and saw it all again when it was broadcast a few years ago; it deservedly has cult status now.
A new version of The Prisoner is now showing. This is a joint US/UK production featuring an American hero (played by John Caviezel) and is set in a model village among the deserts of southern Africa. So far it looks promising, with a similar basic premise but enough differences to make it interesting, and lots of confusing blurring between the hero's past and present lives. One to keep watching, for now at least.