With every studio vying for the next big franchise, it seems we’re entering a new age of cinematic serials. As such, our contributors have gathered to recommend four great series that have produced more entries than anyone would’ve deemed reasonable.
Doctor Who (1963-Present)
Success is a fickle mistress when it comes to television. Series rarely exceed more than a few seasons, save for genres where a revolving cast is to be expected, like in reality shows. Scripted dramas are more susceptible to the vagaries of the audience and bleed ratings when a popular actor leaves for the big screen or writers opt for improbable plots twist that combine water-skis, death-defying stunts, and carnivorous sea life. That’s why the recent fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who stands out as a landmark achievement. When it first aired, few expected the British series about an eccentric time-traveling alien to last very long, let alone become a fixture of British pop culture.
Tiptoeing between child-like whimsy and eerie space horror, the show pioneered a convenient gimmick: the “regeneration” of the Doctor, which allowed producers to recast the main actor every few years and endure. After a long hiatus interrupted only by an ill-fated TV movie in 1996, the modern era of Doctor Who kicked off in 2005 with updated effects and production values. The writers, self-avowed worshipers of the source material, continue to build on the complex mythology while keeping the writing fresh and accessible to new viewers. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s high time to give the madman and his blue box a try.
The Wheel of Time (1990-2013)
I have trouble giving up on a series. It’s a weakness I really should correct. Let’s face it: sometimes less really is more, which is certainly the case with the late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Drawn from both western and eastern mythology, the story of Rand al’Thor, the erstwhile dragon reborn, and his attempt to prevent the apocalypse is populated with so many pivotal characters one needs an appendix at hand just to keep track. I read the series obsessively through its first ten instalments, mesmerized by everything, from its rich geography and sense of myth to its brooding main characters and their various, polygamous entanglements.
As of yet, I haven’t found the energy to finish the last four books, though I doggedly avoid browsing through them at the bookstore or, God forbid, reading their summaries on Wikipedia. That’s the thing: I’m still emotionally invested in the characters as well as their fates and want to reconnect with them like old friends. Plus, I’m curious how seamlessly Brandon Sanderson took over the series. Between the kids and life in general, I just haven’t found the time to revisit The Wheel of Time, but I will get there one day.
Dave Robicheaux Mysteries (1987-2013)
Recently, The New Yorker published an extended essay titled “Why: The Fiction of Life and Death”. In it, literary critic James Wood discusses how the novel struggles with its formal limitations, touching on the question of “Why?” from which every novel draws dramatic tension, since it can never be resolved to perfect satisfaction. Over the course of twenty novels spanning nearly thirty years, James Lee Burke has been chasing that very same question through the eyes New Orleans detective and recovering alcoholic Dave Robicheaux.
In his essay, Wood quotes Nabokov, who claimed that his characters were his slaves. It seems doubtful that Burke would make the same statement. In between Neon Rain in 1987 and this year’s Light of the World, Dave Robicheaux has aged in real time, likely surprising Burke along the way and, in so doing, providing a reason for the writer to keep returning to the series. After all, the why of death, life, meaning, good, and, of course, evil, constitutes the realm of the mystery novel at its most fundamental.
Last year, everyone made a big deal out of James Bond reaching his fiftieth anniversary on the big screen, with no less than twenty-three films under his laser-equipped belt. That’s a remarkable achievement no matter how you slice it, which makes Japan’s Zatôichi all the more impressive, what with it counting twenty-eight theatrical releases, an American remake, a spinoff, and a five-year television series. For those keeping track, that totals just under a hundred and thirty different adventures starring the blind masseur turned champion of justice.
Though the franchise has been around since 1962, my favourite instalment consists of the 2003 reboot The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi, written by, directed by, and starring Kitano Takeshi. Brimming with gorgeous imagery and poetic twists, the film tells of our hero’s encounter with a former samurai and two geishas who seek to avenge their parents’ murder. As he tries to liberate a small town from local bandits, secrets are revealed, and blood is forever shed, but the spirit of Zatôichi remains intact, proving that, even after half a century, a series can remain as fresh as when it first started.