Thu
Jan 17 2013 10:00am

Will Continuum Destroy the Sci-Fi Police Procedural?

Will New Show Continuum Destroy the Sci-Fi Police Procedural?

Despite being a genre beset with its own trappings, clichés, and expectations, science fiction has a tendency to subsume nearly every other genre. In the annals of television, it seems that nothing is more common and consistently popular than the police procedural, so it makes good sense to mash it up with science fiction. But is sci-fi too lousy with space cops, time cops, and even dinosaur cops? With this week’s American debut on the SyFy Channel of the new time travel crime show, Continuum, the sci-fi police procedural is back. But did this series really need to be a cop show? Or is this the sci-fi cop show to end all sci-fi cop shows?

Light spoilers for the first two episodes of Continuum.

Briefly, Continuum stars Rachel Nichols as Kiera Cameron, a “protector” from the year 2077. In this future, large corporations have replaced the government, meaning the law enforcement Kiera works for is not of the people, but instead, from the companies. The first two episodes of Continuum make references to a group of revolutionaries who are performing acts of sabotage in order to disrupt the status quo. The show depicts this in a way that evokes the principles of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but without Occupy’s non-violent practices. The revolutionaries drive the initial conflict of the show and are mostly not nice people. After bombing a large corporate building they’re sentenced to be publicly executed, but right before they’re killed, they manage to zap back into from 2077 to 2012. Kiera follows them, and that’s when the interesting paradox stuff starts to heat up.

All the future cops in 2077 have nifty retracting guns, but are also outfitted with Torchwood-style implants which allow them to communicate with, presumably, their headquarters. Kiera is told by one of her cop-bosses to “rely on her tech.” Naturally, being sent back to 2012, the network she would normally interface with is unavailable. But, thanks to her brain phone, Keira accidentally taps into the network of a present-day hacker/Mark Zuckerberg-style genius named Alec Salder (Erik Knudsen). He immediately begins helping her in secret, working from a tricked-out barn outside of his parents’ house. However, it eventually dawns on Keira that Alec is actually the founder of a huge corporation in the future, one of the very corporations that controls everything. As it turns out, Keira has actually met him as an old man.

Between shoot-outs with the bad guys and a little bit of flirting with the contemporary nice guy cop, Carlos (Victor Webster), the first two episodes of Continuum feel like a sci-fi TV show with cool paradoxes and twists. But the show also occasionally feels like a boring and predictable cop show which requires lots of guns and an obligatory scene in which everyone sits around at headquarters and talks about how to outsmart the perps.

Does Continuum need to be a cop show as well as a time travel show? When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty hard to avoid genre cop shows. Got a show about an immortal vampire living among us? Yes, Forever Knight was a cop show. Time travel as a way to hide in the past from your past sins? It was called Time Trax, and it was a cop show. Super Force was a cop show. The X-Files sometimes FEELS like a cop show. Terra Nova had a cop as one of its lead characters. How about a movie featuring an alternate universe in which evolved, talking dinosaurs live side by side with Whoopi Goldberg? Even Theodore Rex was a buddy cop movie. To be fair, I've heard that Life on Mars affectionately parodies the entire genre of British police procedural, turning it on its head;( I haven't seen it), but it's clearly playing with some of the same concepts!

Still, aren’t the sci-fi premises of these shows enough? It’s not like SF literature is as over-packed with cops or cop-like characters. And yet, the more popular adaptations seem to need them. (I’m looking at you, Blade Runner.) People frequently complain that the bad episodes of Star Trek are when Captain Kirk is playing space cop. Even someone as whimsical as the Doctor from Doctor Who is always citing interstellar law and alerting the Shadow Proclamation. Is the format of television (and some films) so narrow that everything must lead to stories about rule-breakers and rule-enforcers? Even the best science fiction TV shows seem to have some thread of this theme, not matter what else they’re trying to do.

But, the nice thing about Continuum is that it seems poised to possibly invert this basic premise, simply by having its main villains possess—at least on paper—fairly reasonable motives. The rule-breakers are actually, possibly, in the right. Meanwhile the good guys are protecting big corporations. Even the most conservative among us don’t want the world to be controlled by corporations, so there’s something nicely socially relevant about the central conflict. Add to that the fact that Keira’s young hacker buddy in 2012 turns out to be a big bad corporate guy in 2077. Should we like this guy or not? Who is the cop and who is the robber, really?

These kinds of ethical and paradoxical questions alone could potentially make Continuum not only a good time travel show, but maybe, just maybe, a sci-fi cop show that intelligently critiques its own existence.

Continuum airs Mondays at 9pm EST on SyFy.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

22 comments
Cybersnark
1. Cybersnark
And don't forget cyberpunk cop shows, like Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex (which Continuum also echoes, with its built-in cybercomms --similar to the tech used ubiquitously by Section 9).

Really, the key advantage of cop shows is that they provide both an easy "protagonist vs. antagonist" format, and frame that conflict in terms of a 9-to-5 job (which is something the audience can understand, no imagination needed), and come with default character motivations off-the-shelf. They're essentially the basic pre-fabricated TV series.
Cybersnark
2. Scrib
It's not a cop show. It's a fish out of water show.
William Frank
3. scifantasy
Scrib@2: It can't be both? Though honestly, the fish-out-of-water elements seem to subside very quickly. By episode 2 or 3 she's pretty well acclimatized.

Having only seen a handful (four) of Continuum episodes so far, my complaint is that the protagonist/antagonist line is insufficiently blurred. I mean, we get told that the future is corporate-owned dystopia, but we don't see it. The scenes in the future don't look like it (as one character points out, an academic in 2077 talks like a sympathizer, but merely gets teased for the fact that he hasn't been rounded up, and won't be). We get told that the fugitives have the noblest of goals, but they just look like amoral monsters.

I'm told the lines do get blurred later, but right now, I don't know why I should even believe that the rule-breakers really are "pro-democracy freedom fighters."
Paul Lewandowski
4. Snowkestrel
I think the real question isn't whether television is too narrow to not involve rule breakers vs enforcers. That is a story as old as storytelling, and it doesn't even need to involve police. Heck- 'The Breakfast Club' and 'Napoleon Dynamite' fit that description. So do 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Beowulf'.

Rule breakers vs enforcers is a story archetype that works because it is integral to human nature. "Cops and robbers" just happens to fit that archetype in a way that is either very easy to present (you can clearly discern the white hats from the black), or because the drama of blurring those lines is so powerful (ex. 'The Shield').

Continuum will certainly not be the sci-fi cop show to end all sci-fi cop shows. It won't even be near the end.

The real question is, will it be better than those other sci-fi cop shows? Will it be worth watching depite all the easy conceptual comparisons that can be made?
tatiana deCarillion
5. decarillion
Did you notice Kiera's husband's alarm at seeing her in the chamber with the revolutionaries? My first thought was that he was involved with them, somehow. I also got the impression that 'old-man' Alec was in on it, as well.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
Well, let's think about it. If the protagonist of Continuum weren't a cop, what could she be instead? Just some random citizen? A doctor? A lawyer? A cake designer? Then what would motivate her to try to stop the bad guys? What would give her the means and resources to adapt to our primitive era? How would she be physically adept enough to survive her confrontations with the bad guys?

I think that's what it comes down to. Adventure stories are usually about confrontations between people trying to do harm and people trying to stop them. So the protagonists tend to be chasing the bad guys, investigating mysteries, resolving crises, and the like. What's the most logical character type to be performing that kind of action -- and to do so on a regular basis, as they would in a weekly series? There aren't that many. Police officers, federal agents, private investigators, secret vigilantes. So I don't think it's that genre shows are being arbitrarily grafted onto a procedural framework -- I think it's that a procedural/investigative format is a natural one for an adventure series.

Not to mention that making Kiera a representative of the ruling system helps to personify the core conflict of the series between that system and its aspiring destroyers. It makes the stakes and motivations less abstract, more directly about her against the bad guys. The characters in a story should be the ones with the most at stake in its core conflict. A Protector sworn to defend the corporate social order has more at stake in the battle to preserve that social order than a cake designer would.
Cybersnark
7. Eric Saveau
To add to CLB's commentary above: The other, and potentially more interesting, aspect of Kiera's personal stake as a representative of her social order is that she is also being put into a place where she has to confront hard questions about it. Structurally, she defends A but sees problems with it, sees the point of B but cannot accept it for obvious ethical reasons, and so she is, whether she wills it or not, going to have to find - or help to create - C.
Joe Vondracek
8. joev
Similar to what CLB wrote, I've always thought that the reason these shows use a law enforcement officer as the protagonist is mainly for practical reasons. An LEO has the training and access to resources that most people don't, which makes it easier to explain why they're able to track and confront the bad guys. And the writers don't have to come up with some excuse as to why the person isn't at their regular job when s/he is out hunting people down all day long.

Incidentally, this show isn't exactly new. It's first episode aired in May 2012. It's new to SighFie. Hopefully, since it's not one of SighFie's own shows, Continuum will stick around for awhile.
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
Also, to borrow a theory from a friend of mine: people just like stories about people who solve other people's problems -- cops, doctors, lawyers, detectives, superheroes, wandering fugitives who always stop to help the people they meet along the way -- rather than just wallowing in their own personal soap operas all the time. The latter dynamic is a lot more dominant in TV writing today than it was in the '60s or '70s -- even case-of-the-week procedurals have continuing character arcs, and the cases tend to be implausibly relevant to whatever's going on in the characters' lives at the time -- but there's still a lot of problem-solving and helping other people. At least that way there's a sense of accomplishment that the open-ended and convoluted personal arcs don't provide. Shows that go too far into serial mode without some kind of payoff in each episode, that just have each installment add more questions to the mystery or create more angst for the heroes, often don't do as well.
Cybersnark
10. DougL
I really like this show. I wasn't sure at the beginning, but the characters are good and the story is fun. S2 will change a lot if the cliffhangers from the finale work out the way I think they might. I am not spoiled at all.

Give it a shot folks, and if you don't particularly love the first ep or two, keep with it for a few more eps and see what you think.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@10: I loved Continuum right off the bat, because its futurism is so smart and credible. There are some implausible bits like the time travel, the perfectly effective truth serum, and the floaty holograms beside the guns (which, aside from the questions of how they're projected, seem redundant when the cops have HUDs built into their eyes), but there are also some wonderful bits like the uniforms with computers, weapons, and imaging technology built in, and the hints of transhuman abilities in Kiera and the bad guys. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, it's the same sort of gadgetry and human enhancement that the protagonist of my recently published novel Only Superhuman (from Tor!) possesses, so I felt right at home. (In fact I felt doubly at home watching Syfy on Monday night, because my heroine also has a few behavioral traits in common with Bo from Lost Girl.)
Cybersnark
12. Erik Dercf
I watched the first episode and I like it for the compelling nature of the conflict between the goal of the terrorist and goal of the protaganist. But for me I will continue to watch because the Cigarette Smoking Man is the seasoned sage who assures me to trust him and that its a good show. That and the bald guy who has now appeared in Caprica and Blood and Chrome.
Christopher Bennett
13. ChristopherLBennett
@12: "The bald guy" is Brian Markinson and he's been a staple of Vancouver screen productions for many years, as well as doing Hollywood shows. He's done several Star Trek roles, and will be showing up in Tor.com's TNG Rewatch of "Homeward" in about four weeks. In addition to that, he was Lt. Durst in a couple of early Voyager episodes and appeared in Deep Space Nine's "In the Cards" as Dr. Giger, battler of the soulless minions of orthodoxy.
Ryan Britt
14. ryancbritt
@9
I like this theory of yours about problem-solvers. It's part of why certain folks like Nichoal Meyer and Maria Konnikova think Sherlock Holmes has a lot in common with a shrink.

@10 Totally giving it a shot!

@11 I like the credible aspects of the future in this show, too. I really like all of her gizmos. (I'm a sucker for brain phones!)
Christopher Bennett
15. ChristopherLBennett
@14: Again, it's not my theory, though I think it's valid. It comes from my friend and fellow author David Mack.
Cybersnark
16. TomT
I just had a chance to watch the episode and I have to say it has some potential but at the same time it has some issues. First as pointed out it is claimed that the future is a corporate run distopia but they never show us that nor do they even really tell us. As noted the dinner party actually flies in the face of the claims. I think we are supposed to get that it is horrible from her taking down the person on the morning train.

I can visualize why the proposed government could be bad but it isn't ever presented that way and opening with the revolutionaries killing 30,000+ at the start of the episode doesn't exactly get our sympathy up for them. Nor are they depicted as particularly sympathetic even the spokesperson who is so smug I would just like to punch him.

It is to early to tell which version of time travel they are going with or even if it might be a more complex model. There is some very much secondary evidence in the first episode that they are depicting the 2nd model explained where the past is a predestined time loop. The future depicted in the opening exists because of the liber8 and Kiera going back in time. Who knows what might have happened if they hadn't gone on the loop. There are a couple of subtle indicators that appear to lead in this direction. Both have to do with the older Alex's reactions. First his behavior at the execution where he appears to fully expect what happens. Second at the end of the first episode when the older corporate Alex meets Kiera and his comment indicates he expected it.

Both of those tend to indicate they might have chosen the past is fixed model or at least that major events of the past are fixed. It will be interesting to see where they go with this.
David Lev
17. davidlev
I watched this show last year and quite enjoyed it, if for no other reason than Rachel Nichols is an American playing a Canadian pretending to be an American law enforcement agent. I also liked how the show demonstrates how the anti-corporate values of Alec's stepfather are the possible origin of Eduard Kagame's violent terrorism, although I wish the show emphasized the moral ambiguity more--it barely comments on the fact that Kiera is a police officer in an illiberal and somewhat fascist state, and most of Liber8 come off as violent thugs who kill because they're psychopaths (Kagame is a bit more complex). However, the acting and plotting are great- I especially love how it makes you think this might be one kind of time-travelling show, but then a few episodes later casts doubt on that initial conclusion. Happy it's come to SyFy, and looking forward to season 2
Christopher Bennett
18. ChristopherLBennett
@16: I don't agree that the dinner party "flies in the face of the dystopian claims." Sure, people can voice dissent in private with people they trust, but who knows what might've happened to that guy if he'd said those things in a public restaurant, or posted them on his blog?
Bruce Arthurs
19. Bruce-Arthurs
Watched the first episode on SyFy. Premise with possibilities, but the execution is kneecapped by poor acting and idiot plotting. Rachel Nichols' acting range seems to run from A to A.

And am I supposed to just accept that the Vancouver police department is apparently staffed and run by idiots and fools? Kiera is posing as a Portland police detective, and the Vancouver police just... take her word for it? The one attempt to phone her "superiors" in Portland gets interrupted, and they just... forget?... to try again? They don't ask for paperwork from Portland to confirm her working in Vancouver? They don't even ask to see her badge?

Some of the commenters above, who've seen more episodes from the show's non-SyFy run, seem more impressed, so I'll give it another episode or two. But unless I see significant improvement, I'll proably drop it.

And since Keira is using a real Portland detective's name and badge number in her impersonation, that real detective had better show up at some point to confront Keira.
Christopher Bennett
20. ChristopherLBennett
I think Kiera is supposed to be a reserved, disciplined character, and Nichols's performance reflects that. She's certainly playing a profoundly different character her than she did in the 2009 Star Trek (she was the bubbly Orion cadet), and different than I remember her being in Alias, so I think she has a pretty good range as an actress. It's just that her character here doesn't have much emotional range yet. But I definitely recall Kiera having some moments of grief breaking through her reserve.

As for the impersonation issue, I have the impression it will be addressed in the episode airing tonight.
Cybersnark
21. Muccamukk
Watched this show when it aired in Canada last year, and was initially pretty uncomfortable that we were supposed to be rooting FOR the stormtrooper and AGAINST the Occupy people, but I also found that as the show progressed, the lines continued to blur. It ended up being my favourite show last year, and I'm really looking forward to the second season. I really liked that it was actually set in Vancouver, not just filmed there.

I think the OP has a good point about how it could be deconstructing the genre. We want so badly to root for the cop, because that's what buddy cop shows are about, but on the other hand, even she knows that, to quote another terrorist, "There is something terribly wrong with this country."
Cybersnark
22. wolfkin
my complaint is that the protagonist/antagonist line is insufficiently blurred. I mean, we get told that the future is corporate-owned dystopia, but we don't see it.
an interesting complaint because having seen the entire season that doesn't really change. Until the ending and even then it's not really .. clear like you expect. The world doesn't look overrun with corporations.

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