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12.06.18

The Churn

Posted 12th June 2018

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Jonah Nolan1, guesting on the podcast Scriptnotes, Episode #352:

“…I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very used to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.

I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.”

Me? I love the churn. The churn is responsible for some of the best moments of television ever.

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The churn gets you the angriest episode of Frasier ever made. The churn gets you Coronation Street‘s widely-praised storyline about Aidan’s suicide. The churn gets you endless fun on CBBC live links; tons of material, written fast, rehearsed minutes before transmission. The very definition of churn, and stuff which has had me hooting so loudly you could hear me three streets away.

And the churn gets you moments like the Star Trek: Voyager episode Course: Oblivion. Oh, I could have cheated here, and dug up a widely-acknowledged Next Generation classic: Yesterday’s Enterprise, for instance, which was done in such a ridiculous time crunch five people worked on the teleplay just to get the damn thing finished. Course: Oblivion is a divisive episode at the very least, and is rarely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever made.

But it’s a fascinating example of what the churn of television can create. The story of an entirely duplicate Voyager crew, which would never exist if Voyager was a carefully-plotted, 10 episodes a year kind of show. It’s a sideshow – the kind of episode which has many people asking “Who cares – they’re not our characters.”

Or put another way, it’s Voyager having the freedom to say: “What the hell, we’ve got 25 other episodes this year – let’s just do something weird and see what happens”. An episode so nihilistic it barely feels like a Trek episode at times, as our duplicate crew go unremittingly towards their destruction, through no fault of their own. And yet the episode is far from pointless; it’s about the need to be remembered, for your life to mean something. As co-writer Nick Sagan puts it: “it’s about loss and remembering, death and grief.”

I love it to bits. And we owe its existence to the churn of weekly television.

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The churn is “Shit, what the fuck do we do this week?” – and coming up with an answer. Sometimes, the answer is crap. Sometimes, it’s merely fine.

But sometimes, it’s amazing. And you can end up in places it’s difficult to get to with your 10-episodes-a-year, we’re-really-just-one-long-movie-style plotting. Not necessarily superior places, not always. But places we may never otherwise have gone.

As ever: let’s embrace all the different ways we can make television.


  1. Who, incidentally, thinks that The Prisoner doesn’t contain any actual penny-farthings

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1 Comment

Jonny Haw on 12 June 2018 @ 10am

Entirely agree with this, and I do wish UK TV would sometimes do longer runs (if the show suits it, of course).

As well as narrative shows, I also find it frustrating how UK TV can’t/won’t give long term commitments to non-narrative comedy shows. When the BBC launched The Mash Report, supposedly as a response to US satirical shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight (which run almost all year round), they commissioned just FOUR EPISODES!! That’s hardly enough time for the paint on the set to dry, let alone for the format to bed-in or the performers and writers to properly gel. The same goes for most of the UKs attempts to do weeknight talk shows. ITVs Nightly Show may eventually have found its feet if they’d given it more than a paltry 8 weeks (and settled on one host).

Short runs make everything “higher stakes”, meaning there’s little room for experimentation or allowing a new idea to play out and no time for anyone to relax into the format. Instead, short runs seem to create a tendency to frantically tinker with the format as the clock ticks down to the pre-determined end of the series.