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The Rise of Canadian Fantasy/Sci-Fi TV

01/19/2014 08:07 EST | Updated 03/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Currently there's a new light horror/supernatural TV series called Bitten, about a female werewolf (or would that be wifwolf?) and her extended werewolf family.

Starring Laura Vandervoort, who looks a bit like a next generation Dale sister (think Jennifer and Cynthia), and adapted to TV from novels by Kelley Armstrong, so far Bitten seems to have hit the ground at a trot, critically speaking. Many of the initial reviews seem to feel the show okay, but needs to step up its game in the next few episodes in order to stand out from the -- well -- pack. And that's because horror/supernatural series are virtually a dime a dozen these days, with werewolves cropping up in more than a few.

But an interesting thing about Bitten is it's a Canadian series. Even more remarkable, it pays token lip service to that, at least in the first episode, as the heroine is living in Toronto -- though her family home is in upstate New York where some of the action will occur. Bitten has even been referred to as a Canadian series -- or a Canadian import -- in American articles and reviews, and with headlines such as TV.com's "An American Werewolf in Canada."

This is intriguing, because often with past Canadian series, the American (and international) reviewers have been slow -- or even reluctant -- to acknowledge them as Canadian. Unless it's to be pejorative. Indeed, one can wonder if some commentators have identified Bitten as Canadian because some of the reviews have been mediocre -- while Canadian series they like, they sometimes identify more vaguely as simply being "filmed" in Canada (and so intimating these shows are not really Canadian).

But though I say it's interesting that Bitten is Canadian -- it's not really unusual, because there's been a big spike in Canadian "genre" series recently (Orphan Black, The Lost Girl, Continuum and others all in production), building upon a long and storied history. And since fantasy/SF and Canadian film/TV are two things I think about way too much, pull up a big chair for two to cozy up in (as The Friendly Giant used to say) and let's look at where the combo has been, where it's at -- and where it could go, should go, or is going.

Occasional oases of "genre" TV cropped up in Canada dating as far back as the 1950s (the presumably lost to history CBC series Space Command), from horror/fantasy (Strange Paradise) to "hard" SF (The Starlost). A few were made primarily by and for the Canadian market, but most were international co-productions aimed at the global (i.e., American) market.

But from the point of view of a creative continuum it was probably the 1990s that saw the beginning of a cottage industry. It was around then that a spat of Canada-U.S. co-productions arose, driven, in part, by the rise of the straight-to-syndication market and American cable stations looking for first run product that could be made cheaper than would be possible in Hollywood, and needing a loyal audience, but not necessarily a big audience (the very definition of fantasy and SF fans).

The result was a slew of fantasy and sci-fi TV series including StarGate, Andromeda, Earth: Final Conflict, TekWar, Poltergeist: The Legacy and many others. Most of these series were Canada-U.S. co-productions, though it is sometimes unclear who was the Alpha Male in the creative hierarchy. In one interview, one of the Canadian producers behind StarGate lamented that in the U.S. StarGate was dismissed as a Canadian series, while in Canada it was regarded as simply being an American program shot in Canada. Some series were basically overseen by American creators, yet with Canadians fundamentally involved (as opposed to American series that were shot in Canada but remained American productions -- like The X-Files). With others, the creative heavy lifting was unarguably being done by Canadians.

What united most of these productions was that many were derived from existing -- American -- properties (spin-offs from movies or novels or unused scripts). Almost all featured an American actor (or two) as the top-billed star (with other principal roles going to Canadians). And all were adamantly set in the United States -- aggressively rejecting any sense of Canadianness on screen (even the deep space/far future series Andromeda still managed to work in occasional American references!).

Around this time, though, were a few interesting exceptions. The vampire-detective series Forever Knight was a co-production based on an existing American property (having begun as a U.S. TV movie called Nick Night). But it featured an all-Canadian cast and was actually set in Canada. Meanwhile The Collector also featured a Canadian cast and was set in Canada -- and was created by Canadians. The odd-ball Lexx was a space fantasy with largely Canadian and German involvement. And you could also toss Due South into the mix -- not technically a fantasy, but tilting that way being a cult series with a premise of an almost "super"-Mountie battling crime.

But in general, if people had trouble distinguishing between an actual Canadian production (or co-production) and an American production simply shot in Canada, it was because the Canadian producers themselves were trying very hard to promote that ambiguity. At the IMDB you can find discussion threads about the various StarGate series with some fans wondering why there were so many Canadian actors in what they assumed were American series.

But if this glut of series failed to depict a "Canadian" presence on screen, what it did do was at least make the point (within the global industry and among studios and distributors) that Canadian casts and crews could deliver the goods. Love or hate these shows, they generally did what was required of them. No more, perhaps, but no less.

And by establishing Canada as a purveyor of functional (if anonymous) products, and providing situations for creative types to come together within Canada, working on Canadian productions, it provided the petri dish for a new phase to begin -- and the start of something that entertainment businesses are built upon, but is not too often seen in Canada: a trend.

So next time I'll look at this trend that, arguably, began with Sanctuary, and how it led to, among others, The Lost Girl, Orphan Black and now Bitten -- and the lingering sense of a Culture That Dares Not Speak Its Name.

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