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How Sci-Fi and Action Genres Have Changed Over the Years, Part 2

Captain Picard, Mal Reynolds and Doctor Who have some similarities – but not a ton

So after an enormously successful blog post last week, I’m doing what you always do in Hollywood — writing a sequel. This gives me an opportunity to address some of the issues brought up in the comments. First off, where this whole argument got started. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the endings of "Star Trek: Insurrection" and "Serenity." Here again is the incredible Mr. Plinket from Red Letter Media giving us his take on the end fight between Picard and Ru'afo. It starts at the 2:55 mark. And here is a link (sorry no embed code) to the fight between Mal Reynolds and The Operative in "Serenity." Notice how it is nearly the exact same scene with similar sets and objectives for the two characters. Now, the scene in “Serenity” is just better, even down to the FX. The characters have clear motivations and the fight seems like a natural conclusion to the story rather than a tacked on "Die Hard" rip-off. But even if you forget all that, the scene just fits the character of Mal Reynolds, especially the way he was portrayed in the series by Nathan Fillion.

Now as some comments pointed out, during "Star Trek TNG," the producers did throw some action-oriented stories into the mix. But those stories were not the finest moments for Patrick Stewart on that show. The defining moments for the actor and the character were ones that made use of his acting ability and his (literally) million dollar voice. Take this scene. Patrick Stewart is incredible here, not because he’s kicking anyone’s ass, but because he just won’t give up. Moral and inner strength is what defined Capt. Picard, as played by Patrick Stewart. Going back to Capt. Kirk and the original series: I don’t really count him because it was a different era in television and movies. When the original series started, it was still the age of westerns and swashbucklers and the cast of the show would have fit in fine in those pictures. In fact most of the cast had some Westerns on their resumes prior to “Star Trek” (the one with the most, ironically, was DeForest Kelley who played pacifist Dr. Bones McCoy).

But the modern action film was still forming in the primordial cinematic ooze. Capt. Kirk had a lot of traits of the action hero which is why the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” worked so well. Then the comments brought up “Dr. Who,” and this really showcases the differences between sci-fi shows then and now even more.

For the uninitiated, the Doctor is a human-looking alien who has multiple lives — every time he dies he is replaced by a new version. This allowed the producers to recast the Doctor every few years and kept the original series running from the 1963 to 1989. Then in 2005 the show was relaunched. Here’s a segment that best illustrates the difference between the original run and the relaunch. Here is a link to "Caves of Androzani," considered one of the best episodes of the series.

The story is full of machine-gun-wielding mercenaries and bad guys. It’s almost like it was co-written by James Cameron. And it’s tense as hell because the Doctor, here portrayed by Peter Davison, is not an action hero. John McClane wouldn’t have too much trouble with the opening scene — just toss in a grenade or fire a few shots. But that’s not how the Doctor, in this incarnation, rolls. Even if he had a weapon he’d be loath to use it.

You can see from the opening scene that the Doctor has nothing to fight back with except his courage and resourcefulness. Again, inner strength not outer strength. To be fair, there were incarnations of the Doctor who were more action ready like Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. But even they would have been out of place is such a violent world as Androzani. Now compare that with David Tennant’s Doctor from the relaunch. First thing he does is blow something up, and then follows that up with a bad-ass stare-down. By the way, that’s not a weapon he’s holding in his hand all Dirty Harry-like. That’s called a sonic screwdriver, it’s a tool. And did you see the look of death Tennant gave the evil Santas? It’s clear that while this Doctor is not somebody you want to mess with. At least that’s how he’s now being portrayed.

The comparisons go even further. Davison is a fine actor, but unless you watch the BBC you’ve probably never seen him before. Tennant, on the other hand, will be starring in the remake of “Fright Night” due out soon. There are plenty of other examples, like how we went from Karl Kolchak in “The Night Stalker” to Dean Winchester in “Supernatural.” Some of it has to do with the career paths of actors and how they have changed.

Up until recently TV and movies where separate and very few actors crossed the divide from hit show to box office darling. Now it seems like almost every TV actor has a movie project going. But as the “Dr. Who” comparison makes clear, TV shows and sci-fi shows in particular are presenting their characters in a different, action friendly way. So expect to see even more action with your sci-fi TV shows, which will really come in handy when they adapt those shows to the big screen in 10 years. Or less!

Michael Lee is a novel writer, blogger and freelance journalist living in L.A. He's been a judge for the prestigious PAGE Awards and blogs about his two biggest passions, screenwriting and food, at Screenwriting Foxhole and To Cook and Eat in L.A., respectively. Lee is also a co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Screenwriting" and has just published his first novel, "My Frankenstein."