As part of ReQuest 2020, I was asked to review a piece of media I did not like. Specifically, I was told to "absolutely go to town".
The problem with this, of course, is that like most people, I don't generally consume media that I don't like. With the exception of ironic purchases from The Dollar Tree and niche interests of mine, I consume things that I like. When I don't like them, I usually try to give a measured explanation of how the work is a reflection of its time and place. In many cases, my criticisms would probably be out-of-place: when a 40 year old man who lives with his mother dislikes a young adult novel he bought at The Dollar Tree, it probably says a lot more about said man (me) than it does about the book.
But finally my mind fixed on something. This summer, with a friend, we watched a show on Netflix. A near-future science-fiction story. I had to google it, because I forgot the name. In fact, I forgot the name a second time, and even now, I am tempted to go back and google it again because after 15 minutes, I am not sure that "Another Life" is the real name. The show starred Katee Sackoff and a bunch of other people. It was set about 50 years into the future, on an earth where one day, a big alien artifact had inexplicably showed up, and everyone wanted to know what was up with that, so they took a spaceship with Faster Than Light drive to explore a possible source of the artifact. With Katee Sackoff character as the commander of the spaceship. And her husband is the leader of the researchers back on earth.
If I am a bit hazy about some of the details, that is not me being a bad reviewer: that is part of my review. The show failed to communicate what was going on and why, and the fact that I couldn't be bothered to check on that says a lot about the show.
Anyway, one of the primary differences in this show is that the space-going vessel is non-military. It is crewed by a bunch of young people in their 20s, a group of shiftless millenials who don't act like graduates of Starfleet Academy (although they aren't actually millenials, this being around 50 years in the future, so the millenials are all presumably in their 80s or so), but the crew people act like millenials. Or they act like millenials in a way that a producer might pitch them to a Netflix executive "These people aren't Starfleet graduates, they are flawed and it will resonate with younger viewers", I can imagine the pitch going, in the proverbial elevator. So the show is about Katee Sackoff's character, waking up from cyrogenic sleep on a spaceship, in her sports bra, and having to herd the proverbial cats, only the proverbial cats are fractious, grumpy millenials, on a spaceship trying to make first contact, only the first contact isn't first contact, because there is this big glowing thing back on earth.
So this is where the show falls apart and gets bad. The crew members are really, really dumb. Somehow, the writers and producers and directors started from "non-military, with flawed relationships" and decided that meant "too stupid and dysfunctional to work at a Taco Bell, but still chosen to be on a mission that might be humanity's last hope". In the first episode, the crew tries to mutiny against the captain because she points out that a proposed plan is stupid. It is, indeed stupid, and after it fails, the mutineer tries to assassinate her. She kills him, but never tells anyone it was in self-defense. They then land on an alien planet to get supplies, and one of them decides to take off his spacesuit. A lethal virus entails. Later on, on another planet, two of them go traipising off and end up in a bed of hallucinogenic plants. On this same planet, one of the crew members makes a diplomatic introduction in front of an alien artifact. In the middle of this, he gets kidnapped and possessed. And nobody knows, because they didn't have anyone or anything recording his interaction with an alien artifact. They have a faster than light ship, but apparently they couldn't point a GoPro at him while he stood in front of a mysterious alien artifact alone. I don't remember everything that happens, just that it was a string of stupidities and fights that didn't make sense, even within the loose logic of the show. And what I said about these people being too stupid for Taco Bell is pretty literal: presumably, Taco Bell employees wash their hands (please do not message me telling me this is not true, I am better off not knowing), but an astronaut on a mission to a strange planet takes off his spacesuit because reasons, never thinking about the danger of doing so? This show just involves too many things that don't make sense to move the plot along, and the plot doesn't make sense either.
Okay, having tried to piece that out, let me say what this story says about prestige television as a whole. What "prestige television" is, is hard to say, but some of its characteristics are that it is released on a premium channel or streaming service, that it involves plot arcs, as opposed to episodic structure, and that it often involves breaking "broadcast standards", which is supposed to make it more complex and realistic. This show fits these criteria. I can imagine the pitch meeting where it was explained this wouldn't be like Star Trek, no nice and polite people in matching uniforms solving problems at the last minute with a new particle, and then moving on to the next problem the next week. Which is an easy criticism of Star Trek to make, if we had never had either Babylon 5 or Serenity, several decades ago. And if the end project felt realistic at all. Because it doesn't. This mess of conflicts between people who should know better is even less realistic than what it is supposed to replace. Real people have flaws, real people have conflicts, but not like this. "Prestige television" won its revolution, a generation of young people now expect their television to be 10 hour long movies where they have to keep track of a dozen angry characters, but now that television has changed, where does that leave us? When will viewers lose interest in overly-complicated, depressing and angry stories? If Netflix puts out too many shows like "Another Life", that time will be sooner than they think.