Does modern television sci-fi need so many mysteries?

It has become a strong trend over the last few years for American science-fiction television to feature very strong hidden elements.

It’s one thing to have an underground fantastic element to the show, but to keep the audience in the complete darkness is a bit strange to me, except that it’s getting difficult not to think of it as the norm.

Whether it’s a X-Files-esque conspiracy or a Lost-esque phenomenon, the standard method for capturing the typical TV goer into a science-fiction show these days is by bringing up lots of questions, and leaving them unanswered, as opposed to a clear and different mystery or conflict each episode.

In Fringe, for example, while a lot of questions have been answered, we’ve been left to wonder about the nature of “the pattern” since the first episodes. 

In The Event, we may only be ten episodes in, but we still have hardly even any hints as to the nature or goals of the aliens.

Partly, of course, it’s due to the setting choices themselves.

Stories that already have an underground fantastic setting (it’s our real world, except there is this dramatic thing going on which normal people aren’t allowed to, or simply don’t know about) are much more prone to this style of long-standing hidden elements, and grated that seems to be mostly what’s popular in science fiction right now.

Yet, even the few shows that don’t use this setting style, like the recent Jericho or Flash Forward, still have very strong ‘series-long-mystery’ elements.

It’s not pandemic, of course. Other modern series, like Eureka and Warehouse 13 (which, coincidentally had a couple of cute crossover episodes last season) keep their hidden elements to a sensible minimum, despite other underground elements.

The disadvantage of this trend for the audience comes when a story doesn’t last (American television executives are notoriously fickle), and thus the mysteries are never resolved, or have to be resolved in some other form, like a Wikipedia article. 

This then has an unfortunate snowball effect: Modern audiences, especially those who aren’t already sci-fi fans will avoid any new shows which seem to have these elements for fear of the eventual let down when the story is canceled. 

I even find myself sometime saying about a new show, “I’ll wait until it survives for two seasons, then get the DVDs and catch up” because I know that I’ll otherwise have a good chance of wasting my time invested in the show.

Maybe it’s time for television writers to step away from this mechanic for awhile, before the rolling snowball further deteriorates the potential audience for science-fiction on television.