Essay: Continuum - Crime Fantasy and it's Use of Earlier Genres
Continuum (Showcase, 2012-2015) is a modern science fiction and crime hybrid television show. It draws from multiple earlier genres, and themes and conventions within those genres, to construct an innovative, complex and engaging narrative. Through careful application of conventions taken from crime thriller, science fiction, action cinema, feminist cinema and dystopic fiction the audience is presented with a fantastic yet believable world. Often conventions are linked, used to support each other or re-imagined through the use of another convention to create something new.
Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols), Continuum’s lead character, does not prescribe to what was once considered normal for women within crime drama. When talking about crime series Turnbull (2014, p.98) said “one of the key factors in the success of such series is clearly the ‘attractiveness’ of the hero, or indeed, the heroine”. Cameron is certainly attractive; the audience are taken on an action packed but also emotionally charged journey with her as she pursues her foe whilst simultaneously trying to get home to her son. However, Turnbull (2014, p.153) also references Laura Mulvey’s use of psychoanalytical argument when discussing crime genre to suggest that women are constructed as objects of a controlling masculine gaze. This outlook is supported in earlier detective televisions shows and films where women were seen as “the sexy soft spot, the place where the bad guys might loosen up and talk.” (Mizejewski, 2004, p. 113). This is where Cameron breaks from the mould in a similar way to other modern female characters in crime and science fiction shows and films.
As the feminist movement gained traction in the 60s and 70s so too did the more positive portrayal of women in television and cinema. Series like Cagney and Lacey (CBS, 1982-1988) brought women to the head of the investigations that the shows portrayed, whilst films like Point Break (1991) reversed some of the gender roles associated with crime genre. Agent Utah (Keanu Reeves) has to use male sexuality and objectification to gain access to information the FBI needs. The opposite to films such as FBI-Girl (1951) earlier in the genres history that instead use female sexuality to gain information. Indeed, Dyori (2012) stated, when discussing gender roles in television, that over the last few decades we have seen a “striking change is the radical inversion of traditional gender roles”. Other series and films did however continue to portray women in crime, and science fiction alike, as objects for the masculine gaze. This is evident in the 1988 movie Betrayed where, as Mizejewski (2004, p. 113) explains it, “Special Federal Agent Cathy Weaver… is set up…with instructions to use a personal relationship to get information”, and in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) where Leia, despite being a general, was still objectified, wearing a gold bikini at Jabba the Hut’s whim and needing males to rescue her. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that women became common place as integral members or leaders of teams in the crime and police procedural genres. NCIS (CBS, 2003-) introduced Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander) as an integral member of the team and after her death Ziva David (Coté de Pablo). Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) in the forensics lab is also invaluable. All of these character’s skills are highly prized, and whilst their physical attractiveness may be referenced in certain dialogues it is not relevant or integral to their place within the organisations they work for or the character’s place in the show. Castle (ABC, 2009-2016) follows a similar idea with Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). As stated Cameron too follows this liberated modern imagining of the female in crime fiction, rightfully being judged on her abilities and knowledge as a law enforcement officer and not her appearance. It is this knowledge and ability that the Vancouver Police Department seek when they make Cameron head of the Liber8 task force (‘Fast Times’, 2012). This assignment being an integral narrative device to move the plot forward that has nothing to do with the character’s gender. The series goes as far as to directly target female objectification early on. During season one episode two ‘Fast Times’ (2012) in the elevator, Cameron actively shuts down young genius Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen) when he comments on her appearance telling him “boundaries Alec” (Cameron, 2012).
Despite being portrayed as a strong woman who is capable and not treated any differently due to her gender, Cameron’s character also suffers from the same problem Aliens’ (1986) lead character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) had. The perceived weakness of motherhood. Cameron is desperate to get home to her son and some of her choices are influenced negatively by this, putting herself and others in danger. An example of this occurs in season 1 episode 2 ‘Fast Times’ (2012) where Cameron, in a bid to try and get home, actually forms a truce with the terrorists after handcuffing her partner, Carols Fonnegra (Victor Webster), to an elevator. This mirrors Ripley who “is presented as caring, nurturing and protective towards the orphaned Newt” (Caldwell, 2011) and who puts herself into danger in order to protect the child. Even when portraying a female character in a positive light some of the earlier negative, or even sexist, conventions still hold sway. Although “feminist groups argue that women could be seen as active and competent without losing positive qualities associated with feminine behaviour” (Bordwell and Thompson, 2013, p.338) this is not always portrayed on screen. In the case of Continuum and Aliens (1986) it is presented more as a woman being incapable of separating what she must do from her own personal emotions as opposed to being able to portray both simultaneously. So whilst re-imagining and reshaping the idea of a female detective they have also recycled some older, less positive conventions regarding women that are found in multiple early genre films and shows.
The danger that Cameron and Fonnegra regularly find themselves in helps define what kind of crime narrative Continuum is. Todorov (1966) states in his essay The Typology of Detective Fiction, that “… in the thriller: everything is possible, and the detective risks [their] health, if not [their] life”. Using this and other series earlier in the crime genre it can be concluded that Continuum comes under the classification of thriller. Like thriller crime shows of the 60s and 70s that “…routinely exploited the exhilarating pleasures of the action sequence” (Tasker, 2010) Continuum presents dangerous and exhilarating action sequences that leave main characters bloodied on more than one occasion. Tasker (2010) talks about 2000s, action-heavy shows such as 24 (2001-2010) and NCIS: Los Angeles (2009-) saying they “serve as recognisable variants of crime – featuring what are effectively squad rooms as recurrent sets, coupled with the sort of high-tech equipment showcased in now familiar forensic formats”. Continuum does indeed feature the recurrent ‘squad room’ sets audiences associate with crime fiction. Fonnegra and Cameron use this space as detectives have done in crime drama all throughout its history, deliberating and reviewing evidence to provide the audience with a look inside the mind of the investigator. The technology in the show showcases what audiences are used to seeing in forensic formats in an alternate, futuristic, way more commonly found in science fiction.
Films, series and indeed novels in the science fiction genre usually have a scientifically plausible technological innovation that Suvin (1979) describes as the novum. Suvin (1979) argues that science fiction is separated from fantasy by the novum being based not in magic, but in logic. This concept is seen time and time again in science fiction, be it android life forms such as Ash in Alien (1979), or the concept of time travel such as in Twelve Monkeys (1995). The flash forwards in Continuum introduce a lot of futurist and advanced technology. Presenting a world that to audiences of the 2000s, feels similar to the world British director Maurice Elvey presented to 1920s audiences with his silent science fiction film High Treason (1929). The series constructs the futuristic dystopic world that Cameron comes from and throughout various episodes explains many of these technologies. However, one of the key innovations, or nova, in the show is the City Protective Services (CPS) suit used by all Protectors in 2077. This futuristic and highly advance technology is easily believed by the viewer due to how it is introduced. ‘Fast Times’ (2012) shows Cameron being implanted with the Cellular Memory Review (CMR) chip and being issued with her suit and other tech. Its functions are explained to her, and the audience, by her commanding officer. The suit links with the CMR chip implanted in the brains of all CPS Protectors and is used alongside an advanced service weapon and multi-tool. It allows the recording of up to 36 hours of video to prevent disputed testimony and bad arrests (‘Fast Times’, 2012). The combination of these technological advancements and the commanding officer’s explanation, including describing rooms for upkeep and maintenance, provide a logical explanation for technology that in current times is otherwise unfathomable. The suit, whilst falling under the genre of science fiction, also has functions that are integral to the investigative elements of the show which come from the crime genre.
Turnbull (2014, p. 98) describes the hero in crime drama as performing the role of a guide; saying they take the viewer on a weekly excursion into the world of crime to “participate in what is often an epistemological quest for truth”. Continuum, despite drawing heavily on science fiction for its plot does not move away from this crime genre idea of a quest. The science fiction elements, especially the technological nova, merge with this quest for truth giving the characters, and by proxy the audience, new ways to investigate and piece together the clues of a given crime. A prime example of this is in season 1 episode 3 ‘Wasting Time’ (2012); Cameron and Fonnegra are on a case relating to murdered males having their pituitary glands harvested. Cameron activates her CRM chip along with her cybernetic visual implants to rapidly compare genetic records (figure 1). The science fiction technology directly supporting the crime investigation.
This also brings another element of crime genre into the series, that of the forensic investigation. Rather than needing a lab or team of forensic experts like in forensic shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, 2000-2015), Cameron’s bionic implants in combination with her CPS suit allow forensic investigation work to be undertaken in the field almost immediately. This allows the story to progress much more quickly, with no lab time, yet the audience is not left feeling cheated as they are still shown a believable, in the context of the show, way of the characters finding out the information they need. This can be seen again in season 1 episode 7 ‘The Politics of Time’ (2012) when Cameron uses bio-enhancement mist in combination with her visual implants to detect finger prints in an entire room. She is able to eliminate prints that don’t match her sample until she finds a match for the known suspect. Another forensic tool from earlier crime genre serials innovatively re-imagined through the shows hybridity with science fiction.
For an investigation to be undertaken and the police officer or investigator to have purpose there needs to be a crime or an organisation in opposition to them or to those they serve and protect. In Continuum this protagonist takes the form of the terrorist organisation, or gang as Vancouver Police Department see them, known as Liber8. Cameron takes the lead on a task force to bring them down, the idea of a ‘squad room’ being used to good effect to let some exposition on the members of Liber8 be introduced seamlessly into the narrative (‘Wasting Time’, 2012). Liber8 as an organisation take the “…traditional depiction of the Alien “Other” [from] American science fiction films as a Destructive Monster whose sole purpose … is the eradication of human civilization.” (Grant, 2012, p. 402), and adjust it to be a more modern monster. They do this by taking the form of a terrorist organisation or gang. Whilst not wanting to destroy human civilisation as a whole they want to destroy the corporatocratic, dystopic, future human civilization that they hail from. The audience are gradually introduced to how Liber8 came to be throughout the series. Using terrorist methodology to try and bring down the Corporate Congress, a government that took over after “…the corporations bailed out [the] failed governments” (Kagame, 2012). This combines both the Right and Left dystopic ideologies that are present in future films as outlined by Ryan and Kellner (1988, p. 53) in Technophobia/Dystopia. They stated “films on the Right dramatise contemporary conservative fears of ‘terrorism’” and “Left films…criticise the current inequalities of capitalism”. In this case Liber8 are fighting against the capitalism centric, corporatocratic and oligarchic government of dystopic North American through terrorist means. Following a theme from other earlier science fiction films such as The Terminator (1984), the group travel “back-to-the-present” (Grant, 2012, p.414) to try and prevent the future they know from ever occurring. Both the good and bad elements of life in this dystopic future are presented through flash-forwards, leaving the audience to decide on what they believe is morally correct. Either the life of a catered for but indebted person controlled by the Corporate Congress or the life of a freedom fighting extremist supporting Liber8.
Continuum uses a careful balance of multiple conventions from early genres including; crime-thriller, science fiction and police procedural. It hybridises genre conventions in order to create something that is new and innovative but that the audience can still easily comprehend, given prior knowledge of those genres. The show portrays female investigators in a mostly empowering way. It doesn’t shield them from the action or danger inherent in a crime thriller, but whilst re-imagining and reshaping the idea of a female detective they have also recycled some older, less positive conventions. Technological nova provide a way of advancing the investigative process inherent in crime genre and allow for short cuts within the narrative without leaving elements unexplained. The protagonist group, Liber8, which are constructed using the science fiction conventions of dystopic futures and time travel provide the object of the criminal investigation. They are portrayed in the present as a gang, rather than as a terrorist organisation as they are in the future. This allowing the show to address them in a police procedural manner of investigation and enabling the conventions inherent within that genre to be used alongside science fiction conventions.
Continuum Logo Header (Continuum, 2012-2015).
Figure 1, Cameron’s point of view, incorporating her heads up display, when scanning genetic records (2012) From: Wasting Time, Continuum, series 1 episode 3. Directed by: David Frazee [TV episode still]. Canada: Showcase.
24 (2001-2010) Fox.
Alien (1979) Directed by: Ridley Scott [Film]. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Aliens (1986) Directed by: James Cameron [Film]. United States: 20th Century Fox.
‘A Stitch in Time’ (2012) Continuum, series 1 episode 1. Showcase, 27 May.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. (2013) Film Art: An Introduction. 10th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988) CBS.
Cameron, K. (2012) Continuum. Showcase, 3 June.
Caldwell, T. (2011) Aliens: Mothers, Monsters and Marines. Available at: https://blog.cinemaautopsy.com/2011/09/23/aliens-mothers-monsters-and-marines/ (Accessed: 16 May 2016)
Castle (2009-2016) ABC.
Continuum (2012-2015) Showcase.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015) CBS.
Dyori, B. (2012) ‘Breaking Dad’, Flow, 17(04). Available at: http://flowtv.org/2012/12/breaking-dad/ (Accessed: 16 May 2016).
‘Fast Times’ (2012) Continuum, series 1 episode 2. Showcase, 3 June.
FBI-Girl (1951) Directed by: William A. Berke [Film]. United States: Lippert Pictures.
Grant, B. K. (ed.) (2012) Film Genre Reader IV. Austin: University of Texas Press.
High Treason (1929) Directed by Maurice Elvey [Film]. United Kingdom: Gaumont British.
Kagama, E. (2012) Continuum. Showcase, 27 May.
Mizejewski, L. (2004) Hardboiled & High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.
NCIS (2003-) CBS.
NCIS: Los Angeles (2009-) CBS.
Point Break (1991) Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow [Film]. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Ryan, M. and Kellner, D. (1988) Technophobia/Dystopia, in Redmond, S. (ed.) (2004) Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 48-56.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) Directed by: Richard Marquand [Film]. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Suvin, D. (1979) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Tasker, Y. (2010) ‘Action television/crime television: sensation and attraction’, Flow, 13(02). Available at: http://www.flowjournal.org/2010/10/action-television-crime-television/ (Accessed: 16 May 2016).
‘The Politics of Time’ (2012) Continuum, series 1 episode 7. Showcase, 15 July.
The Terminator (1984) Directed by: James Cameron [Film]. United States: Orion Pictures.
Todorov, T. (1966) The Typology of Detective Fiction, in Greer, C. (ed.) (2010) Crime and Media: A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 293-301.
Twelve Monkeys (1995) Directed by Terry Gilliam [Film]. United States: Universal Pictures.
‘Wasting Time’ (2012) Continuum, series 1 episode 3. Showcase, 10 June.