Genre Focuses on Effects and Explosions. Where Does That Leave The Cast?
When people talk about innovations of genre television, they tend to focus on special effects, artwork, cinematography, CGI, and on futuristic or fantastic storylines, alien characters in prosthetic makeup, drama generated by action or mystery. It's very rare for someone to admit to watching a genre show for the acting.
Does acting matter? It's certainly possible to make the case that it doesn't. William Shatner is not one of the most talented thespians to grace the small screen, but his hard-hitting Captain Kirk was comfortably predictable, boisterously confident...just about perfect. Most of the rest of the Classic Trek crew were confined to single-note performances, but they worked fine. One-dimensional characterization was a trademark of many older sci-fi series - the cheesy performances on Dr. Who and Lost in Space and especially Adam West's Batman actually worked in favor of the campiness and humor.
The Prisoner wouldn't have worked with a Method actor aiming for shades of subtlety. Even multifaceted actors like Lindsay Wagner tend to give rather limited performances on shows like The Bionic Woman. When the characters take second fiddle to effects, explosions, and electronics, what's the point of trying to give a subtle, nuanced performance?
On the other hand, it would help on Babylon 5 if the some of the actors stopped playing science fiction cliches and started putting in some subtext to their performances. Sheridan comes across as the least discreet guy around: whatever he's feeling at any given moment shows loud and clear on Bruce Boxleitner's face, without complication or mystery. Ditto Lyta Alexander, ditto Delenn. It's rare for anything on that show to surprise me because the performances are so unsubtle: when a scene is heading for a dramatic climax, the whole thing gets played dark-and-heavy, whereas when it's aiming for comedy, everyone's smiling before the jokes are told. G'Kar and Londo have always been the exceptions: I think they get better material than anyone else, but the actors also give them a wide range of reaction to virtually every situation they're faced with. Maybe this is why they do get better material: they can play shades of gray.
I'm not sure why the acting on Babylon 5 has always seemed poor to me in comparison with the Trek series, considering that on Trek, some fine actors get nothing to do twenty-two out of twenty-four episodes a season. But there's no denying that even in the bleakest days of Deep Space Nine, when Sisko's authority was floundering and Kira was in a catsuit, Avery Brooks and Nana Visitor were consistently turning in excellent performances which sometimes even managed to rise above the material. I think Visitor is one of the finest actresses on television. Her Kira has never been boring - not first season when she was being written largely as a pushy broad with a chip on her shoulder, not third season when Kira fell swooningly in love with Bareil, not last season when her pregnancy forced an exploration of Kira's maternal side.
It's funny that the characters which are written most unidimensionally - Spock, Data, Odo, Voyager's Doctor - often seem to have the most range of emotion. I often think Nimoy, Spiner, Auberjonois, and Picardo don't get enough credit for that: the non-human characters often do get storylines that the writers are too chicken to give to human characters, but it's not everyone who can convey complex emotions with the lift of an eyebrow or the curl of a lip. Duchovny and Anderson keep winning awards for their acting on The X-Files, which is interesting given the extremely understated style they both seem to favor; I can't think of a single instance in which I'd accuse either of them of having been over the top, except in parody scripts which called for it.
If bad acting doesn't hurt science fiction series, can good acting save them? Probably not - Kristen Cloke couldn't do anything with Space Above and Beyond, and Kate Mulgrew can't singlehandedly salvage Voyager, though both actresses are consistently better than the material they're given. For all the griping about Janeway during the first few seasons, during which she underwent personality transformations from episode to episode while the writers tried to figure out how a woman captain should act, Mulgrew's physicality and warmth were the only reason the character worked at all.
On the other hand, Lance Henriksen was the best thing about Millennium for two years, and quite possibly the reason it hung on to its viewers; the writing has finally begun to lose its relentness hideousness, but I'd give him full credit for anything that worked about the early episodes. And La Femme Nikita is all about stylish performances; nobody would care about the plots without the raw chemistry and skilled interactions of the characters. All TV shows, not just genre, need more of that.
Ahem! While I agree to the fullest extent possible under current libel law with your assessment of Mr. Shatner's thespian powers (although I will say, before all these fine readers, that he is as good an actor as he is a novelist, and stand by that opinion even if a stack of Bibles were to be placed on my chest), I cannot agree that Babylon 5 is cursed with blunt, lame actors, ESPECIALLY in comparison to the Star Trek series, both of which are unfit to lick Londo Mollari's boot bottoms.
How do you judge an actor, as distinct from her character? By the ability to pull off expressions, vocal inflections and subtler hints that are more than just standing on your marks, reciting your lines. By doing the HARD parts well; yes, a performance of (say) Jack Lemmon's closing plea from Glengarry Glen Ross can move one to tears, but just about anybody can pull that speech off. Move me to tears with "can you reconfigure the external sensors to scan for energy forms inside the station?" and you are Dionysius on Earth, God of Actors.
It's possible to be quite charming without changing your expression one millimeter over the course of 100 episodes; look at the supporting cast of Cheers, for example. And if that's all that is asked of a particular actor, we can say no word against him; thus John Ratzenberger was a perfect Cliff Claven, William Christopher a perfect Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H*, or to move closer to home, Walter Koenig as Ensign Chekov or Psi Cop Bester, both of whom are finely drawn, memorable one-note characters. So was Captain Kirk, for that matter, shouting the same way whether he was in battle or in love.
Nor is it easy; I thought Sheri Belafonte was doing a poor job in Thirdspace, because every line was delivered with the same smirky, singsong intonation for ninety solid minutes. And then, at the end, she suddenly showed a different side of her character, which made me think maybe she could act after all, and the flatness we saw early on was deliberate, to show us how shallow her character was before the consequences of her actions hit home. Well done, Ms. Belafonte, and my apologies for having doubted you.
But in order to show that kind of character growth and development, you have to change. And moreover, the character has to change for some definable, believable reason, not just wildly oscillate between two antagonistic writers' mutually exclusive attitudes toward the character. Which is why it is easier for Bruce Boxleitner and Mira Furlan to show subtle changes and inflections on Babylon 5, written by a master, than on any of the incarnations of Star Trek, written by committee.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.