Anyone stopping by this site might wonder why exactly I don’t just talk about ALL science fiction, I mean it’s not like I don’t watch stuff from my home country at all. Keeping in mind that I am a Star Trek fan, I’ve dabbled in Star Wars, and I love some old Buck Rogers, that doesn’t excuse the fact that I am shamelessly addicted to stuff from the “other side of the pond”. The question remains, is there really a difference to the two different styles, can one distinctly draw a line between the two sides and separate them? For me, the answer is yes.
I think the main difference can all be chalked up to the argument of mood vs spectacle with the British productions geared heavily towards atmosphere, mood, and concepts and most American helmed productions relying mostly on spectacle, visuals, and special effects. As one can imagine, most of this can be chalked up to budgetary constraints, as anyone with access to millions of dollars in production budget would love to make something as grand as Star Wars, but if you are given far less you may have to settle for Blakes 7. What this usually means is that the actual scripting for these British programs has to be scripted to concentrate on tension, horror, and relationships versus escapist imagery. This forces the writers to go for ballsy content that will grab viewers and hold them; while there are a few American scifi shows that have taken this route, many “wuss out”.
A prime example of this neutering of concept in favor of spectacle can be seen in the American version of Life on Mars, a remake of a UK show from a few years ago. At first glance, the shows seem similar, but anyone will immediately notice a stark difference between the two. First and foremost, we have the production values in place hammering away any subtlety in concept. Instead of filming in antiquated areas, and keeping things dingy, the American show goes for a smooth veneer of CGI effects on things to add in the twin towers and other relics to constantly remind us of another time.
I was constantly baffled by the use of yellow lense filters to instill a weird vibe on the show, it made it look like portions were filmed on Venus or something. I know folks had a hideous concept of color back then, but wouldn’t it be better to actually use sets with yellow, green and brown things in them instead of just tossing a filter over everything? It’s not like the sky was yellow back then, though I was born in the 1980’s so maybe I missed that memo. This basically ruined the show for me right from the beginning because it makes it hazy and hard to see anything in any of the shots. Instead of thinking “man, Gene Hunt’s office has terrible décor”, I thought to myself “why is he at work at sundown in a foggy yellow-lit room?” While both shows do a fairly decent job of keeping the early 1970’s fashion and hairstyles in check, the American one looks a bit too “shiny” and somewhat gratuitous. The acting seems more “Hollywood” and fake, and everything looks too clean and sterilized. Even the classic cars seem to all be from car shows, no spec of dirt on any of them. The U.K. Life on Mars excels on “not trying too hard” and succeeds by keeping everything simple. The U.S. version tries far too hard, and as a result fails.
Another huge misstep is the overall casting of the show. In the original, Sam was a normal sized guy, athletic but not too large. This was at odds with Gene Hunt’s large size and physicality. We were to believe that if the two were to ever get in a fight, Hunt would decimate Sam with sheer size and brute strength. Instead we have a Sam that towers over Hunt, a sixty year old Hunt to be exact. I know Harvey Keitel is a well-liked actor, but how am I supposed to believe that he is a hardass, if it looks as if he could break a hip at any moment. Everyone else looks “too pretty” if you get my drift, nobody looks like a real person, and it seems like they cast the show from a modeling agency.
My final real problem is that the show has been whitewashed to be more politically correct. In the original Gene Hunt is not a nice man, he is a corrupt cop that uses his rank to bully everyone around him. Aside from that he is a chauvinist, he is racist, he is homophobic, and he has the manners of a drunken frat guy. While a bit of that stays in, things like racist views are taken largely out, as to not offend people. I can see why this happened, but the whole point of the character is to show an exact opposing view to Sam, someone that Sam tries so hard to avoid being. This way, when Gene starts to soften up, especially in the sequel show Ashes to Ashes, he is that much more endearing.
I could keep going, but I’d rather not nit-pick the entire show to death. Truth is, had I never seen the original version I still would have been annoyed by the show, and probably not finished it.
By doing this comparison, I am by no means belittling American science fiction as the inferior product, but it does show why one can almost never truly adapt a program from there to here, our sensibilities are so different. On the flip-side imagine a show like V (the new one) being created in the U.K., it would be an entirely different show. So yes, there is a difference in the two brands of sci-fi, and I prefer one over the other.
Very interesting post.