Most Television From Before 2000 Is Trapped in the Uncanny Valley

Just as the technological innovation of the mass-produced book paved the way for the new storytelling medium called the “novel,” technological innovations that allow audiences to rewatch TV shows and binge-watch whole seasons have changed the whole medium of episodic video storytelling. (Babylon 5 did it early and did it well — but the article I’m reacting to barely touches on it.)

Here’s what I think is the most important change that happened in the 1990s.

TV shows finally got rid of the rule that each episode had to stand on its own. People, and things, no longer needed to be the exact same at the end of each story as at the beginning. This rule was designed so that casual viewers could follow a show without difficulty, and episodes could run in any order in syndication. And it really hampered the storytelling of these older shows—I think often about how much cooler it would have been if Will Ryker’s transporter duplicate had been allowed to take his place on the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the writers reportedly wanted.

This rule meant that characters couldn’t change as a result of the things that happened to them. And that meant they couldn’t grow, which in turn meant they had no inner life to speak of. Twentieth-century television frequently feels as is it’s trapped in the uncanny valley, with actors trying to act like human beings but not quite getting there. Returning to Doctor Who, the best companions were the ones who felt like they had a subtle, gradual arc, growing and changing as a result of their time with the Doctor. And of course, Blake’s 7 felt like a breath of fresh air when it aired on PBS stations in the early 1980s: every episode counted, the characters went through changes, there were Consequences. —Charlie Jane Anders