Tuesday 17 August 2021

Going Back To The Same Well

The Best Dramatic Presentation (short form) ballot seems to indicate that Hugo nominators are a group that like to go back to the same well, year after year. This year’s shortlist, in fact, may represent the nadir of this trend.
The final episode of She-Ra and the Princess of
earned the show its first Hugo nomination.
(Image via she-raandtheprincessesofpower.fandom.com)

Consider that between the six finalists there are representative entries from the three of the screen franchises most-often represented on Hugo ballots: Doctor Who (six wins out of 35 nominations) Star Wars (three wins out of ten nominations) and The Good Place (three wins out of six nominations). Of the entire ballot, only the She-Ra and the Princess of Power episode “Heart” represents a franchise that has never won a Hugo Award.

To be fair, many of the entries on this shortlist are excellent representatives of their respective fictional universes. “Gaugamela” from The Expanse plays with tension without descending into melodrama; an extraordinary hour of science fiction television. “The Jedi” from Mandalorian tells a mostly self-contained story exceedingly well, all while teeing up the narrative arc for the rest of the season. While not as carefully structured as the other nominated episode from Mandalorian, “The Rescue” provides the payoff that longtime fans likely want. And the funny, charming, and genuinely surprising “Fugitive of the Judoon” might be the finest episode of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who.

As has been widely noted across the Anglosphere, there has been an increasing reliance among media corporations to lean on their franchises instead of developing new content. It is simply a safer bet for movie and television executives to invest in iterations of existing intellectual property instead of trying something new. To some degree, it’s disheartening to see that at least the majority of those nominating for the short-form dramatic Hugo are reinforcing this corporate risk aversion. It might be noted that only once in the past decade has there been a Dramatic Presentation Short Form shortlist on which a majority of nominees were from franchises that had not previously won the award.

Last year there were several excellent science fiction and fantasy television shows that might have benefited from the attention offered by a Hugo nod.

The Robbie Amell post-cyberpunk comedy Upload, the oddly compelling Japanese series Alice in Borderland, Alex Garland's meticulously planned out Silicon Valley fable DEVS, and the intricate and beautiful German time travel epic Dark come to mind.
Critically acclaimed SF horror Lovecraft County
creator Misha Green was blindsided by the decision
to cancel the program
. It deserved a Hugo nod, 
as well as a second season.
(Image via NBCNews.com)

The abrupt cancellations of Lovecraft County, I Am Not Okay With This, Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist and Tales From The Loop (among others) seem to indicate that even the best-reviewed original (non-franchise) content is now in constant jeopardy. If we want to enjoy a mass-media landscape that continues to produce diverse, nuanced, and engaging stories, it will take concerted collective effort to ensure that such stories thrive. Hugo nods (and Emmy nods) may not be enough to secure a place for such works, but we’d argue they are at least a part of the solution.

It is interesting to note that in the prose fiction categories, Hugo nominators have long shown an aversion to recognizing licensed franchise works. It seems that the voting public is averse to recognizing such works — even critically acclaimed, fan beloved, and bestselling works such as Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel My Enemy, My Ally, and Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novel Heir To The Empire. This is not a complaint on our part; we are entirely supportive of this unwritten rule to avoid franchize fiction in the prose categories, but it seems odd that other Hugo categories now embrace this sort of profit-chasing multimedia universe.

This year’s short-form dramatic Hugo ballot is one of the better ones in recent memory, with works that are at least mostly enjoyable delves into established (and perhaps somewhat tired) universes. If the nominees were all we watched this year, we’d be left wishing for new worlds to explore.

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