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The Stateside Skew

The trouble with adapting British sci-fi / fantasy for America

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The new adaptation of the great BBC series Being Human once again raises two equally baffling questions: first, do perfectly good British series really need to be transplanted and reengineered for American audiences to enjoy them? And second, why does it go wrong so often?

When it comes to Americanizing British hits, examples of both huge successes and humiliating disasters are not far to seek. Drill down to sci-fi/fantasy, and the record of failures becomes more pronounced. Of course, U.S.-to-U.S. sci-fi reboots often fail too; genre shows are tough to create, and even tougher to resurrect. But as these examples show, it's a particularly chancy proposition bringing sci-fi across the pond.

'Red Dwarf' (1992)

Universal Studios

The American version of Red Dwarf -- Rob Grant and Doug Naylor's sharp 1988-1999 BBC Two comedy about the sole remaining human and his companions (a hologram, an android, the ship's computer, and a humanoid evolved from the ship's cat) -- was a notorious train wreck.
What Went Wrong: A pilot was written by Linwood Boomer (later creator of Malcolm in the Middle) retreading the original British pilot, but with a largely American cast led by Craig Bierko. The story goes that studio audience laughed, but execs at Universal didn't, so a new supporting cast was brought in (including Terry Farrell) for a hastily thrown-together new pilot from Grant and Naylor mishmashing old and new footage.
End result: Execs didn't like the hybrid either, and eyebrows were raised over the newly all-white cast (the British version is mixed-race). The US pilots exist only in bootleg copies.

'Doctor Who' (1996)

BBC/Universal

After the BBC unceremoniously canceled the original Doctor Who in 1989 after its 26th season, diehard fans were looking for any opportunity to resurrect the series. So when Philip Segal's transatlantic partnership created a new pilot aimed at American audiences, a lot of people were excited.
What went wrong: The pilot movie introduces the Doctor, then kills him off and regenerates him, so viewers are left unable to get a handle on the character; the new Doctor does un-Doctory things, like randomly advising strangers on their futures and claiming to be half-human; the story, involving the Doctor needing to steal a clock, is banal; and the villain (Eric Roberts as the Master) is a lot more fun than the hero.
End result: The pilot didn't sell and aired once on Fox, leaving Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor to occupy a twilight continuity (expanded in books and radio dramas). True resurrection would wait another nine years.

'Life on Mars' (2008)

ABC

Life on Mars started with a strange premise even for a British show: A 2006 Manchester detective finds himself, after a car accident, in 1973, where he ends up working at the same stationhouse but in a very different environment. Adapting it to an American metropolis (Los Angeles, later changed to New York) seemed a cinch: the police culture shock between the Serpico 1970s and the CSI present should have been even richer stateside.
What Went Wrong: Advance word of a network-ordered script overhaul and recasting for a new pilot warned off part of the audience; more viewers fell off during a two-month midseason hiatus; the title (a reference to a David Bowie song) didn't register for Americans.
End result: Despite being regularly cited as a failed adaptation because it was canceled during its first season, in terms of episode hours it lasted longer than its source material (17 episodes aired, the entire original order for the series); more importantly, after early turbulence it had found its own story to tell by the time it was killed off.

'Touching Evil' (2004)

USA Network

The original Touching Evil, airing on ITV (1997-1999), was a hard-bitten crime drama with a touch of the supernatural: the lead character, a detective named Creegan, awoke from a gunshot wound able to sense criminals, a partial help in his team's effort to track the worst kind of criminal.
What Went Wrong: The American version, for USA network from the makers of Menace II Society, eliminated the supernatural element: Creegan (now played by Jeffrey Donovan, later to take the lead in Burn Notice) was freed from his inhibitions by his injuries, making him the cop that will do what other cops won't.
End result: 12 episodes aired on USA, but its good initial ratings fell off, and USA didn't renew it for a second season.

'Max Headroom' (1987)

ABC/Cinemax

Though his glib, irreverent, ironically iconoclast, and hugely self-involved character was largely formed from the moment he appeared on screens, Max Headroom started out as nothing more than the innovative, computer-coiffed host of a British music video/interview show, airing on Channel 4 in 1985 and 1986. From those origins he blew up larger than even he could have imagined. A TV movie, with Max the alter ego of a crusading TV reporter in the near future (both played by Matt Frewer), was developed for Channel 4, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future; it led to an American series that aired on Cinemax and ABC.
What Went Wrong: Max's daring style and format energized some viewers but alienated others; its anti-corporate, anti-TV-network message bit the hand that fed it; ABC put it up against ratings gorilla Dallas.
End result: Though canceled after 13 episodes, the American series along with the TV movie are still remembered as groundbreaking television.

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