Would We Prefer Continuing Storylines or Stand-Alone Episodes?
To arc or not to arc, that is the question. And I guess the answer is that it depends on the show, and what point we're at in its evolution. The Trek franchise would be in much better shape if the producers really knew what an arc was - a handful of episodes about a mean new alien threat which is quickly neutralized and which then goes away until the next sweeps month doesn't count. On the other hand, I think X Files is arcing itself into oblivion. I guess the upcoming movies for both franchises will tell.
Classic Trek and The Next Generation never had arcs and never really needed them. They had recurring villains and characters who popped up from time to time, sure, but no long-term plan; the repeating aliens and characters seem to have popped up more by whim than by design. In some cases that worked very well - the evolution of Ensign Ro, for instance, from Starfleet misfit to officer to Maquis renegade, something that couldn't have been planned by the writers in advance because there were no Maquis when Ro came onto the series. But other situations - the silly, dragged-out Sela storyline with the Romulans and the House of Duras, for instance - came across as poorly planned and weakened the franchise's most interesting villains.
Voyager has played with arcs involving uninteresting recurring villains like the Kazon and the Hirogen, but they've been skittish about the sorts of arcs which could have set that series apart, and should have, given its unique situation: Maquis-Starfleet tension, characters getting married or leaving the ship, on-and-off contact with home. DS9 has had several successful arcs and the war's not over yet, plus their recurring villains - Dukat, the Dominion - are much better developed and more interesting. Still, my favorite-ever Trek arc, the political and sociological crisis on Bajor, seems to have fallen by the wayside. Oh well, maybe they'll tie it up this season before going off the air...or maybe they'll do the realistic thing and address it without assuming, as Trek so often does, that big problems can be tied up in a neat little package with a starship ornament on top.
X Files didn't start out as an arc show, but there were hints even before Gillian Anderson's pregnancy forced the beginnings of Scully's current problems that some of the loose ends out there would be tied back together in interesting ways. During the third and fourth seasons I generally liked the arc episodes much better than the supernatural-phenomena-of-the-week, which get pretty hard to take one after another when it seems like every town in America has a werewolf, a Satanic cult, or a man who can see death coming. Now, however, the arc is really starting to annoy me. Is there ANYTHING in recent world history that can be attributed to plain old human corruption, voter laziness and greed, politicians taking advantage of the system for their own benefit, scientists trying to get rich and famous, people falling in love and making rash decisions? Or is absolutely everything tied to the work of a handful of men with connections to a conspiracy involving aliens?
The world would be much simpler if Cancer Man really killed all the heroes of the '60s, rather than individual angry sociopaths; I'd love to think a lone man was responsible for AIDS and inflation and mistreatment of deportees and the hostage crisis and Three Mile Island and the Gulf War and the Chicago Cubs never having won the series. But that's silly, and getting sillier by the minute, aliens or no aliens. In a world where militia groups blame something called "the man" for government's imperfections, I'd like to see more emphasis on the responsibilities of all of us to the truth. I will be impressed for all eternity if the movie really manages to please both regular viewers and an unfamiliar audience, because right now they've got their stories tied in so many knots, I have trouble keeping them straight without checking an encyclopedia of the show.
I am not a true Babylonian, as I've said before: I think the dialogue is often cliched, the acting mediocre, the minor characters left to languish as caricatures and even some of the major ones reduced to two major emotional states: very very pleased or very very unhappy. Still, as arcs go, it wins my all-time sustained television storyline award. Babylon 5 has been pretty consistently interesting for almost four of its nearly five years of existence; there are very few shows in the history of television I can say that about, let alone the history of sci-fi. I think part of why it works is that it's not afraid to pursue what would be considered soap opera concerns on Trek or one of its clones: it has ongoing, slow-moving relationships, it has a lot of subtle character details.
I'm not one who was disappointed by the ending of the Shadow War, which I'd had quite enough of, in terms of the ponderous discussions of absolute evil and all that: I was rather more interested in Earth politics, and sorry that the standoff with President Clark ended as quickly as it did. Other shows which come to mind immediately as great successes, arc-wise - The Prisoner for instance - didn't last anywhere near as long nor sustain a level of tension as deep.
As for the rest, Buffy has an arc going which is terrific while Xena's doesn't seem to be working at all. Prey is so arc-driven that I completely lost the thread when I missed one episode, while Earth: Final Conflict is easier to jump into now than it was when it first went on the air. I'd have to say that arcs, like most things in life, work best in moderation unless you've got the really, really good stuff.
I like arc shows better than the other kind, but even as B5 and Buffy make arcs look fantastic, I agree that X-Files makes arcing look dumb.
See, I think what Chris Carter et. al. are doing on X-Files is pretending to have a story arc. The one absolute requirement for any multipart story is that it must have an ending in mind before it begins. If you don't, it won't work.
You can occasionally pull off a hat trick if you don't (indeed, JMS has had to do this several times when key actors left the series) but the result is never as good as a properly planned arc, and is often very clumsy indeed.
The key example of a failed arc is X-Files. I'm sorry; try as I might in these pages, I can't make all the threads of the conspiracy tie together. Why? Well, it's certainly possible that the writers are smarter than I am, but I think the most probable assumption is that they have been doing what seemed cool at the moment for several years, giving little thought to the ending, assuming they'll "think of something to wrap it all up" when they get there.
Honestly, this isn't a bad way to plot television. B5 aside, no one knows how long any show will be on the air. If you plot a show to wrap after three years, and you're cancelled in Year One, that'll be a pretty disappointing year for all concerned.
I read comic books; I write roleplaying games. I've seen maybe a dozen examples of what it looks like when the writers (and this is a classic pitfall of having several different writers, by the way) drop all sorts of hints and then, overwhelmed by the weight of their construction, desperately scramble to find some kind of resolution. It's not just TV, believe me; you can smell the flop sweat through the pages of the Spider-Clone story, or the endless X-Men silliness, as sharply as out of The X-Files.
No, the only way a show has been able to sustain a meaningful arc is when one person (Joss Whedon on Buffy, JMS on Babylon 5) is in charge of the writing. When non-writers (that loathsome breed) are allowed to run a TV show, you get Voyager, and don't tell me Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga are writers; first of all, they're lousy writers, and second, they're not in charge anyway. You point out correctly that Buffy and B5, as well as Xena and Hercules, are shows; Star Trek is a "franchise." There are things the producers know they can't even dare to attempt, for fear of spilling some of the gravy.
So if you're going to have a writing staff, or a huge stable of freelancers, the thing to do is stay clear of arc shows altogether. James T. Kirk didn't need 'em; neither should you.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.