Trek To Babylon
While 1998 was a mediocre year for television overall, it was a fairly good year for genre. There are over 30 new science fiction, action, fantasy, and horror shows currently on network and cable, plus a wide variety of reruns and television movies, and endless hype on Entertainment Tonight about the new Star Wars film. Tempted though I am to give my Best Series award to the Sci-Fi Channel's restored original Star Trek, to do so would be a disservice to many fine newer shows.
Best Series is a difficult choice this season. While I firmly believe that The X-Files is without peer in genre and perhaps even on television, 1998 was not its best year. The crescendo towards Fight the Future and the anticlimactic return afterwards were disruptive to the television narrative; I'm rather confused at present about who's running the conspiracy, who's controlling whom at the F.B.I., and (most importantly) whether Mulder and Scully are partners, friends, lovers, or just a couple of mixed-up peopleo can't decide. While there have been several superlative episodes in the course of the past year - the superbly directed "Kill Switch" and "Triangle" come to mind - they were overshadowed by the film, and there were no episodes which had the emotional power of 1997's "Christmas Carol" and "Emily." While I'd give the award for this decade to The X-Files, I can't give them the award for the year.
Similarly, Xena is a terrific show, but it did not have a terrific year in 1998. I found the whole motherhood arc to be misguided; though the stories were well-executed, they reduced two of the strongest women on television to their maternal instincts, and put a contrived rift into Xena and Gabrielle's friendship which greatly weakened the latter's character. Joxer was sillier than necessary, Best Supporting Actor Bruce Campbell's humor was sorely needed in the episodes in which he appeared. Though the musical "The Bitter Suite" is one of 1998's finest hours, there were too many silly "Fins, Femmes, and Gems"-type stories, and WAY too many fish jokes. The Hope arc ended well, but it left Callisto dead - a great loss for the Xenaverse - and nothing interesting has built since Gabrielle's resurrection. Xena needs some new regulars, or perhaps some new writers.
Hercules, on the other hand, had an absolutely terrific 1998. I may as well put my feminist reputation at risk and admit that I usually like Hercules better than Xena. Sure, it annoys me that Morrigan and Nebula are stuck forever playing sidekicks in a boy's world, but this show has a fantastic sense of humor, a couple of utterly likeable heroes, and a terrific campy sensibility. I was crushed by the death of Iolaus, but if we get to see Michael Hurst as the Widow Twanke dancing in Hercules' arms again, I will probably get over it. Kevin Sorbo really came into his own as an actor this year, which is ironic because he missed several episodes due to an injury; still, we got some hysterically funny Autolycus and Salmoneus appearances to cover, and when Sorbo returned for the Dahok arc, he was superlative. I hated Dahok on Xena, but his presence on Hercules has reinvigorated the series; fighting the minions of his wicked stepmother Hera was getting a little old. Give the runner-up trophy to the Son of Zeus.
I watch four series consecutively on Sunday nights: the three above, then USA's La Femme Nikita. I'm sorry to have to announce to Scully and Xena that Nikita and Madeline have become the two coolest women on television. The series itself is uneven - some episodes are breathtakingly believable, some are utterly ludicrous - but the characters are terrific and the show itself is extremely stylish. Unlike The X-Files, La Femme Nikita never resorts to parody, relentlessly taking itself seriously, which gives it a kind of integrity and power very rare in genre television. Among cult audience shows, I'd put this and newly-returned The Sentinel at the top, closely followed by Earth: Final Conflict which has taken many surprising turns this season, and the surprising The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, which is dark and interesting. (A brief farewell bow to Highlander which left on a strong note; it's too soon to tell whether The Raven will be a worthy successor.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best things to happen to television in my lifetime. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a revelation: her performances in the episodes after Angel lost his soul and again after she trapped him in Hell were convincing, her depression absolutely real. I adore this character: despite her adolescent angst and the trivialities of her suburban life, Buffy's even stronger than Xena. I love her balance of independence and passion, I love her relationship with Giles in which she sometimes becomes the mentor. In fact the only thing I don't always love about Buffy are her friends. Xander and Cordelia are OK, Willow's fun when she's not too flaky, but when Buffy isn't the unquestioned center of an episode, I find myself losing interest quickly. Maybe this is an age thing - I'm probably at least a decade older than this show's target audience - but sometimes the self-parody gets dangerously close to mockery. I thought the series lost some steam after Angel's return, and I expect it to lose some more when he spins off onto his own series. I'm giving SMG the Best Actress award, but I want to give Buffy another year before committing to it unequivocally as a fan.
Star TrekVoyager...well, the less said about it in 1998, the better. I am pleased to note that near the very end of the year, it appeared to be getting slightly better - Robert Picardo's wry Doctor was featured prominently several episodes, while Robert Beltran's comatose Chakotay was largely absent. But we're still getting much too much obnoxious, stilted Seven of Nine, and the Captain Janeway of this year has been by turns bitter, sarcastic, and self-righteous. It's not that the plots are terrible, it's that there's no character consistency, no continuity with previous seasons, and nothing to make us care whether or not these characters complete their journey home other than the hope of seeing some familiar Trek faces if they do. Even the "Letters From Home" episode failed to move. No cookies for this series.
And now I am supposed to proclaim Babylon 5 the best series of 1998, right? There's only one small problem. While Straczynski's show was dealing with a move to a new network, the loss of a lead actress, the abrupt end of a multi-season arc, and the shift in roles for characters which accompanied the shift from wartime to peacetime on the series, Deep Space Nine was beating Babylon 5 at its own game. I remember when these shows came on the air, there was concern that, as space-station based series, they might be too similar. For three years this was not an issue, since B5 was setting up a complex arc while DS9 frittered away its potential on Klingon honor and interstellar dating, but the latter came into its own with a vengeance at the beginning of its sixth season, building up the Dominion War just when B5 let the Shadow War fizzle out.
I know that there are some who feel that Deep Space Nine is not authentically Star Trek, having dragged Starfleet into a dark, painful war which has caused a shift away from Trek's typical themes of exploration and unity. Maybe, but after three years of TOS and seven of TNG, the franchise was ready for change, and Ira Behr, Ron Moore, et al have risen admirably to the challenge. They have taken some of the best aspects of Star Trek - the bonds between the characters, the familiar Federation principles, the witty technobabble banter - and grafted it to a complex storyline, culled together from both the erratic Cardassian stories of TNG and the compelling Bajoran arc of DS9's first two seasons. The situation has allowed virtually all the characters to shine, even minor recurring folk like Nog and Garak. I have no qualms about awarding Best Series of 1998 to Deep Space Nine. My only problem awarding it Best Episode is that it's hard to separate out the arc stories as individual installments.
Babylon 5 certainly ended well; Sleeping In Light brought tears to my eyes, though I had expected it to be anticlimactic once we learned Londo and G'Kar's terrible fates. I'd certainly give Bruce Boxleitner a Most Improved Performer award, with a nod to Tracy Scoggins for Best Performance Trying To Replace An Irreplaceable Character (Nicole DeBoer's doing admirably on Deep Space Nine as well). But I missed Ivanova this season, and I missed the Shadows, though I appreciated the complex politics of building an alliance and reshaping wartime relations in peacetime. The series has been a great boon to science fiction television; I hope Crusade can continue the tradition.
Without further ado, The Television Awards for 1998:
Best Series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Best Episode: "The Bitter Suite," Xena: Warrior Princess
Best Actor: Andreas Katsulas - G'Kar, Babylon 5
Best Actress: Sarah Michelle Gellar - Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Best Supporting Actor: Bruce Campbell - Autolycus, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess
Best Supporting Actress: Alberta Watson - Madeline, La Femme Nikita
Best Guest Actor: Mark Alaimo - Dukat, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Best Guest Actress: Gina Torres - Nebula, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Best Director: Chris Carter, "Triangle," The X-Files
Best Script: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, "Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Hercules," Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Best Visual Effects: "One Little Ship," Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Best Costumes, Hair, and Makeup: "The Killing Game," Star Trek Voyager
Best Animated Series: The Simpsons
Best Miniseries: Merlin
Best Revival: Star Trek on the Sci-Fi Channel