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Self-contained, episodic storytelling has fallen by the wayside in a lot of cinematic media, particularly for live-action television shows. Now the emphasis is on long-form story-telling suitable for the new era of binge-watching. The technology allowing one to stream episodes on demand rather than planning out your week by the TV guide and waiting for reruns if, heaven forbid, you missed an episode, has changed the nature of the storytelling format. I don’t think that is a bad thing, especially since I love “novels for television.” I do love long-running arcs that explore repercussions of the choices that characters make, sometimes only showing the full effect seasons later.
But I think that sometimes the power of self-contained episodes gets ignored or brushed off as a relic solely related to the technology that distributed it. Just because a show is comprised of self-contained episodes does not necessarily compromise its impact. A collection of short stories linked by the same characters can be just as powerful as a single giant novel. In some cases, it can be even more effective, depending on the kind of stories you want to tell. This is something I’ve really come to understand and appreciate as my friend Fox and I spend our evenings watching Star Trek: The Next Generation through Netflix Parties.
Despite my deep love of Star Wars, my earliest memory is of Star Trek. I remember sitting in the dark eating mashed potatoes and corned beef watching Next Generation. And over the years, I’ve come to realize that my love of Star Trek came in the form of two of the Next Gen movies (First Contact and Insurrection), four of the Original Series movies (Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered County), and a handful of episodes from both series. We didn’t have regular television, and getting TV episodes on tape from the library was still relatively new, so my exposure to new episodes was sporadic. I mainly just rewatched what we had on hand.
It’s weird to think that you know characters, that you’ve spent a great deal of time with them, when in fact you know very little about them and have actually not spent much time with them. And yet, even though most of Next Gen is new to me, I still feel like I understood the characters. A handful of episodes and movies was enough to imprint them on my young mind and keep them with me for over three decades. Now I am simultaneously experiencing their journey for the first time while reuniting with characters who feel like old friends. It’s a very weird sensation, but it’s also gratifying to find that, despite the limited number of episodes I saw, I did understand the essence of these characters. I didn’t need seasons upon seasons of build-up in order to enjoy the pay-off. I don’t need to see tons of backstory to give the characters emotional depth. Sure, the more episodes I watch, the more I understand different facets of those characters and the more it informs my reactions to their subsequent experiences. But good writing and solid characters doesn’t require that kind of build-up. And character really is at the heart of Star Trek.
With so much of modern television storytelling focused on long, interconnected stories, I’m happy that some shows are bringing back stand-alone episodic elements. Shows like Rick and Morty or The Mandalorian embrace many of the best aspects of episodic stories while still pulling threads together in an overall narrative arc. I’m particularly thrilled by the recent announcement that the new show Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which focuses on the adventures of Captain Chrisopher Pike, will be episodic. When you don’t have the time to commit to a deeply interconnected or complex narrative, it’s nice to have the option of shows with solid, well-defined characters that can pull you in for the 30 or 45 minutes it takes to perform their vignette, but who will remain with you long after the episode is over.
Now it’s time for me to boldly go… back to Netflix.
One thought on “Impact of the Episodic”
I like this perspective. In a way, episodic storytelling might be one embodiment of the maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” Whereas a standalone story might tell you that the characters journeyed for a while, or fought crime, or grew close, or whatever… a TV show can actually show it. And, because it stands as part of a true episode, it doesn’t feel like it’s only there to serve the final destination of the story.
Although it’s hard to flesh out a long arc, I think that writing a large number of high-quality, self-contained stories must be even harder. So many ideas to generate and develop! So much pressure to think of something new for the characters to actually DO.