Former GeekPlanetOnline Site Editor Dave Probert is a man with an ear to the ground of the geek community. When that ground starts to rumble, our man in East Sussex has something to say...!
Showrunners, those who hold the creative reins of our favourite TV shows. The visionaries who guide them to the screen and carry the responsibility for success or failure upon their shoulders. The phenomenon of the celebrity showrunner has been steadily on the rise, especially in the realm of genre TV. I would contend that it all began with Rod Serling being the very public face of The Twilight Zone. He fought to maintain creative control over the series and penned 92 of the 156 episodes. Serling was The Twilight Zone and the image of him smoking a cigarette while introducing each episode has embedded him in popular culture.
These days there are showrunners who have attained rock star status. Just naming a showrunner with a good track record can be enough for interest in a show to spike. When Bryan Fuller was announced as showrunner for the new CBS Star Trek show, many people went from mild interest to active excitement, myself included. We know pretty much nothing else about the show other than Fuller taking charge, but that is enough. Familiarity with his previous work gives a good indication of what we can expect from his take on one of the most popular TV franchises of all time.
The position of showrunner is not without its reputational risks. There are many who believe the position of Doctor Who showrunner to be something of a poisoned chalice. The people in charge of the show have drawn fierce criticism right the way back to Graham Williams’ run as Producer. Williams was unfortunate to take over from Phillip Hinchcliffe, who had helmed Doctor Who through what many see as its creative heyday. While it is true that subsequent producers of Doctor Who took the show in different creative directions, they can’t be held entirely responsible for the way that the end product turned out.
Williams, for instance, faced severe economic problems that were far beyond his control. Inflation had become such an issue that the budget he was allocated at the start of a season would be worth far less by the time that they got to making stories at the end. At the same time, Star Wars had arrived on the scene and completely changed what people expected in terms of special effects, which Doctor Who couldn’t hope to compete with. Add into the equation a leading actor who regularly butted heads with directors and co-stars and it is a miracle that Williams managed to produce what are arguably some of the most entertaining stories in the show’s history, including one stone cold classic in City of Death.
Modern showrunners are equally at the mercy of the fates. Joss Whedon had to contend with the Fox’s erratic scheduling of Firefly and decision to show episodes out of order. Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s superlative The Middleman struggled to find an audience on ABC Family because it was so unlike anything else on the network. A showrunner can get everything right and still end up having their show cancelled while other shows, such as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can veer wildly in quality and still be allowed time to develop and find their feet.
To put it in Star Trek terms, some show runners are Captain John Harriman. Harriman wasn’t a bad captain: he was given an incomplete ship and told to take it out around the park in the name of publicity. When his superiors suddenly ordered him to take charge of an emergency situation he pointed out his ship’s lack of resources and suitability, but due to their lack of foresight his ship is the only one in the area. It was only due to the presence of three exceptionally seasoned veterans that the mission was mostly a success. Harriman happened to be sitting in the big chair when his ship was placed in a near impossible situation and the character is judged harshly for it.
With all of this in mind perhaps the time has come to dial back our expectations of showrunners. Brian Fuller’s appointment to Star Trek certainly ensures that there is a creative mind behind the storytelling, but we don’t know what external influences will be brought to bear on the show. As genre fans we bring a weight of expectation to some people that can be difficult to live up to. Not because they are not capable creatively, but because unforeseen circumstances can arise that completely change a show’s creative direction (just ask J. Michael Straczynski what a combination of unexpected renewal and a hotel cleaner binning your season notes can do to the quality of a show), and they will ending up shouldering the blame.
I’m not suggesting that all showrunners be given a free pass because of this. Just that it is worth taking into consideration when critically assessing their work. It is worth at least trying to appreciate the bigger picture before descending on a showrunner with torches and pitchforks and calling for their head. It is a lot to put on any one person and we should be thankful that there are those who manage it at all, never mind managing to produce something amazing. I wish Brian Fuller, and indeed Chris Chibnall, every success as they embark on a new chapter for a much loved TV show.
If things don’t work out as expected, try to remember that even James T Kirk struggled to captain the Enterprise B.