Apple TV+'s Best New Sci-Fi Show Signals an Exciting Change in TV
TV is an episodic medium. One sci-fi series not only understands this, but uses it to its advantage.
There’s an art to a good pilot episode. With a sci-fi series pilot, it’s an even finer art. In less than an hour, the episode has to establish the rules of the world where the story takes place, the inciting incident of the series as a whole, and any pertinent characters. It’s a tall order in any medium, but on Apple TV+, a streamer that has told directors that “if something doesn’t happen in the first 30 seconds ... people will just turn off,” it’s even more difficult.
But Silo, now streaming on Apple TV+, somehow took a completely new and original dystopia and established everything a viewer would need to know in one episode. Though the script for the episode was near-flawless, the true reason Silo’s pilot episode is so enthralling goes even deeper: the show’s very rare form of source material.
Silo is based on Wool, a series of short novellas by Hugh Howey. They follow a dystopian world where the populace lives underground, and the discovery of a dark secret. While the books and the series focus mainly on mechanic-turned-leader Juliet, the first part of the first book — and the pilot — barely feature her, instead focusing on the tragic tale of Sheriff Holsted and his wife Alison.
While altogether the Wool series is about as long as any other sci-fi novel, the first novella only clocks in at around 60 pages. It’s an uncommon format for literature, but in the age of ebooks, they’re becoming more and more popular: Wool was initially available as a Kindle exclusive for 99 cents. As the demand grew, so did the world of Wool.
Science fiction has always championed the short form, from the olden days of sci-fi short story magazines to later “fix-up” novels like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The shorter length of these stories made them easily adaptable to television. Dozens of sci-fi short stories were adapted to be episodes of The Twilight Zone, including some of its most iconic episodes like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Time Enough at Last.”
But as TV has matured, adaptations have expanded. Now, if a work of literature is going to be adapted, it’s usually a novel, like Game of Thrones or A Handmaid’s Tale. But there’s an inherent flaw in this approach: While books are one long narrative, TV is split into episodes. Much of the adaptation consists of finding good stopping points and forming episodes that both feel like complete stories in and of themselves and move the overall plot. Movie adaptations can take advantage of this as well — though they don’t have episodes, breaks in the story make structuring a screenplay a lot easier than a long novel.
Because Silo started as a series of novellas, the episodic nature has been there from the get-go, making the narrative’s episode breaks feel natural. The action is still different from the books, but the breaks feel not only justified but necessary to the plot of the story.
This is a sure sign that television and movies are once again recognizing short-form and episodic source material as the rich resource they are. Just look at the instant Netflix cult classic First Kill or the genuinely fun family movie We Have a Ghost, both based on short stories. The upcoming Game of Thrones spinoff A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight, much like Silo, is based on a series of novellas, making it perfectly suited to TV.
Episodic source material doesn’t even have to be literature: HBO’s The Last of Us felt so much like the video game because the game was already broken up into “chapters” that made divvying up episodes easy. Comic book adaptations — actual comic book adaptations, not Marvel movies — have a similar benefit. Even podcasts provide episodic storytelling.
Silo is the perfect example of how a short narrative doesn’t mean it’s any worse than an 800-page epic. Short stories, novellas, and any other short-form media face up to the same challenge of a television pilot: establishing an entire world incredibly efficiently. This series, and its perfect pilot, prove just what happens when you look beyond the traditional novel for inspiration.