Now, in 2012, that Cardiff is officially the science fiction capital of the world, it’s hard (and a little painful) to remember that time when it wasn’t.
It’s sobering indeed that there was a time in the mid-1990s when the only fantasy nurtured in this Welsh metropolis was the notion that Doctor Who would ever come back to TV. At that time, it was Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city and burgeoning marijuana producer, that was the weird-tale Mecca. Vancouver’s most prominent offering was The X-Files, followed by the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (which was making a bid for similar filmed-in-Canada-aired-in-US fame), but chances are you saw a few of their other offerings, which used to clog up mid-afternoon cable TV schedules even more than darts: Highlander (1992-1998), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) … the list goes on.
The reason I write this now — look, I know the website isn’t called ‘Cult Canadiana’ — is because this year, Vancouver’s location lustre is severely depleted. Sanctuary (2008-2011) has been cancelled, and Fringe will end next year. A new spin-off from Primeval (The New World) is setting up shop, but other than that, now Canada’s only fantasy is that Primeval is a good idea for a TV show.
To return this to some relevant entrée for the British cathode-ray cultist—as a Canadian it saddens me to say it, but Cardiff’s success has really put into perspective Vancouver’s ultimate failure. Sure, nearly three decades of tax-incentive television was produced, but to what end? It clearly failed to establish a secure foundation for future Canadian production. Worse, it inspired little loyalty from audiences anywhere and indeed, perversely foregrounded its own anonymity. By contrast, science fiction/fantasy series from the last decade have thrived on their distinctiveness, and it can’t be a coincidence that, in a far briefer period of time, they’ve established greater international success—and more than that, real passion from their audiences.
It’s telling that, when The Globe and Mail reported on this downturn (“Fears Mounting Over BC’s Film Production” by Marsha Lederman, 5 June 2012), the online reaction concentrated entirely on the pros and cons of the taxation changes that has made Vancouver less affordable for international production. As well as suggesting that people who read The Globe and Mail online may be spectacularly dull, it’s interesting that not one person protested, or even commented, on the actual series being cancelled. I suspect many people actually working in this industry in Vancouver have the same attitude—the productions are merely tax-deductible, moving wallpaper.
Vancouver is a beautiful, vibrant, and unique city. I wonder, though, if its decades-long exposure on television has engendered the merest recognition, never mind appreciation, among international audiences. I’m sure some Welsh citizens are a bit peeved by their capital’s continual redressing as London—but at least Doctor Who let the city play itself a couple of times, and had Torchwood establish it as a weird pan-spatial/sexual nexus. You probably remember that when McGann’s Doctor made his single appearance, he was apparently in San Francisco. The X-Files, meanwhile, mocked it up as just about every American city from Washington to Cleveland, while Highlander settled for a more ambiguous ‘Anycity, USA’ (I believe the Big Finish audio dramas gave it the ludicrous portmanteau moniker ‘Seacouver’).
At least the TV Movie showed off a few Vancouver landmarks—Chinatown and the Plaza of Nations may not be the city’s most glamorous tourist spots, but they look pretty filmed at night through Geoffrey Sax’s blue lenses. Highlander’s antagonism to its location’s architectural or natural distinctiveness is staggering—I can imagine a British Columbia tourist official weeping after every episode. While the episodes filmed in Paris dwell luxuriously on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, the Canadian ones (with occasional exceptions such as the University of British Columbia and Stanley Park) take Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) to back-alleys, under bridges or his makeshift loft, a run-down gym—it’s no Torchwood hub, let me tell you—or his mate’s divey blues bar. Still, the series’ historical recreations are quite artful—and (something of a recurring theme among Canadian-produced fantasy) demonstrate the hard work of the production designers and craftsmen, belying limited budgets to create brilliant designs. An Aztec temple was redressed as Hitler’s bunker, and the scenic ingenuity of the likes of Rex Raglan makes it impossible to tell (so please forget that I just told you).
In more straightforward outer-space fare, Vancouver has the obvious advantage of being surrounded by lush, near-tropical vegetation. Stanley Park is a majestic enclave of flora, and all around are some of Canada’s most beautiful Boreal forests and mountains, to say nothing of Whistler three hours north. Its extra-terrestrial possibilities were most thoroughly mined in Stargate and its various spin-offs (SG-1, Atlantis… please stay awake at the back there)—a remarkably torpid franchise, notable for its undeserved coverage in British science fiction periodicals like Starburst and TV Zone in the late 1990s, and its equally undeserved (and immediately retracted) theft of Doctor Who’s ‘longest-running science fiction series’ Guinness World Record. But—if you ignore the woeful premise of American soldiers chatting with uncomfortable-looking loincloth-clad mystics, and concentrate on the scenery—it does a decent job of portraying another planet. I suspect among the generation who grew up on these shows (and I’d genuinely love to hear a spirited defence of Stargate, by the way), these dense, high tree-topped forests have become their analogue to Doctor Who and Blake 7’s slate quarries and Star Trek’s Californian semi-desert—all credible depictions of alien worlds, only undone, I’d argue, through repetition.
Even then, it takes only a moment to see Canada contributes little other than pretty scenery, which is quite irritating considering its premise—cribbed wholesale from Erich von Daniken and Robert Holmes’ Doctor Who episode Pyramids of Mars—concerns aliens becoming the gods of Egyptian mythology. A slight alteration to North American aboriginal mythology (which, yes, Highlander demonstrated some tokenistic decency by incorporating) would not only have made the series slightly more distinctive, but more relevant to its nominal setting.
To bring things right up to date, Sanctuary seems to hit a new zenith in Vancouver’s quest for anonymity. The whole thing was filmed on green-screen. This surprises me, as the only glimpses I’ve seen of the series are dingy subterranean metallic corridors, and I wonder if that isn’t a waste of some talented computer renderer’s time (When I was a kid I remember going around a Russian submarine moored in Richmond, which looked almost identical but with far fewer pixels).
This seems to be a metonym for a series striving quite hard to look like every other vaguely extra-terrestrial TV series going. There’s a blended smoothie of Hellboy, X-Men, and Torchwood in its premise of ‘abnormal’ creatures trying to be inconspicuous. There’s a touch of The Prestige in its fantastical appropriation of Nikola Tesla. There’s even a reassuring nod to Highlander in the appearance of actor Peter Wingfield—there as here, demonstrating the Hollywood truism “pulpy hokum + English accent = gravitas”. While it’s decently put together, any kind of originality seems to have been checked at the door—those abnormal chaps are pedestrian CG-tinkering actors far removed from Guillermo del Toro’s twisted genius. Lacking the intelligence of its rivals, and too earnest to be camp, Sanctuary has tellingly provoked the merest ripple of a reaction, and its cancellation was met with the thunderous sound of silence. The less said about the similar-sounding Eureka, the better.
Admittedly, a just-started new entry, Continuum (2012) seems to be getting favorable reaction—and is actually using its Vancouver setting! If it works, maybe it will spearhead a new start, and a more original direction, for Canadian science fiction.
So, unless Primeval: The New World takes that eponymous world by storm (and as Torchwood apparently failed to do so with a much higher budget and profile—and the same title!—the signs don’t look good), the time may be right for a bit of a rest from the city ambitiously dubbed ‘Hollywood North’ (but probably not by anyone from Hollywood). I really do hope the city has a future of production, and its technical experts finally get the creative personnel they deserve. In more down-to-earth genres, there is a high caliber of Canadian television and film-makers—the likes of Ken Finkleman, Chris Haddock, and Guy Maddin. The time seems right for their ranks to include an equally ambitious auteur in the realms of science fiction or fantasy. Films such as John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2001) and Maddin’s My Winnipeg illustrate the potential for Canadian fantasy to flourish as itself, not dragged up in American or British disguises.
The critical and popular appeal of Russell T. Davies and J.J. Abrams has not been matched in Canada so far. If it is, not only might these wonderful Canadian cities appear as themselves, there might finally be a chance to create some ideas as inventive and exciting as those cities, and their international equivalents.