Reforming the Short Form Hugo: A Guest Post by Dale Skran

By Dale Skran: For a long time, I’ve felt the Short Form Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation was not properly organized to give an award to the best “Television” SF of the previous year.  My critique was three-fold:

(1) Requiring a particular episode to be nominated “by name” made it very difficult for a program to receive the award.  Fans often love the show but prefer different episodes.  A great series might get many nominations for different episodes but lose out to a single episode from a lesser series being pushed by an organized fan campaign.  This characteristic also gives an unfair advantage to long-running series like Doctor Who with a large fandom that can run a campaign for a particular episode.

(2) Allowing short-shorts that are not regular TV shows to be nominated has the effect of diminishing the short-form Hugo as an award for series SF.

(3) The requirement to nominate a single episode also tilts the playing field in favor of anthology series or highly episodic television.  This may have been appropriate the 1950s/60s when some of the best SF shows were The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, and virtually all series programming was rigidly episodic, but is a much worse match to series performances of the modern age that feature long story arcs and tight ties between long sequences of “episodes.”

As the world of “television” has expanded to included Internet shows and has taken on a globalized character, a new problem has arisen.  It may be years before a great SF series makes it to a venue such as Netflix where it has a wide audience such that it might get enough attention to be nominated for the short form Hugo.  Thus, we live in a time in which the short form Hugo simply ignores the best series SF, and is given out to whatever happens to be on BBC, Amazon Prime, Disney, HBO, or Netflix in the previous year.

As an example, consider the 2021 short form nominees and winner:

  • The Good Place: “Whenever You’re Ready,” written and directed by Michael Schur (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television, a division of Universal Studio Group) [WINNER] [you can watch on Netflix]
  • The Expanse: “Gaugamela,” written by Dan Nowak, directed by Nick Gomez (Alcon Entertainment / Alcon Television Group / Amazon Studios / Hivemind / Just So)
  • The Mandalorian: “Chapter 16: The Rescue,” written by Jon Favreau, directed by Peyton Reed (Golem Creations / Lucasfilm / Disney+)
  • The Mandalorian: “Chapter 13: The Jedi,” written and directed by Dave Filoni (Golem Creations / Lucasfilm / Disney+)
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: “Heart (parts 1 and 2),” written by Josie Campbell and ND Stevenson, directed by Jen Bennett and Kiki Manrique (DreamWorks Animation Television / Netflix)
  • Doctor Who: “Fugitive of the Judoon,” written by Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall, directed by Nida Manzoor (BBC)

As can be readily seen, these programs all appeared on a small number of the most widely viewed net “channels.”  The impact of this phenomenon is that anything that takes a few years to make it to the bigger venues can never win a short form Hugo no matter how excellent it might be.  One example is fantastic Counterpart, which ran for two years on the cable network Starz from 2017 to 2019.  I watched it much later on Amazon Prime. It is also available for purchase on various other services to buy.  Right now, I am watching Motherland: Fort Salem by purchase on Amazon.  It is “free” only on Freeform.  This series has the best fantasy SF/world-building I’ve seen since Counterpart, but not enough of an audience will ever see it to allow it to be nominated for a short form Hugo — ever.

Since the 2022 nominees are just out, let’s take a look at them as well:

  • The Wheel of Time: “The Flame of Tar Valon,” written by Justine Juel Gillmer, directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, based on The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (Amazon Studios)
  • For All Mankind: “The Grey,” written by Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi; directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Tall Ship Productions/Sony Pictures Television)
  • Arcane: “The Monster You Created,” written by Christian Linke and Alex Yee; story by Christian Linke, Alex Yee, Conor Sheehy, and Ash Brannon; directed by Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord (Netflix)
  • The Expanse: “Nemesis Games,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck, and Naren Shankar; directed by Breck Eisner (Amazon Studios)
  • Loki: “The Nexus Event,” written by Eric Martin, directed by Kate Herron, created for television by Michael Waldron (Disney+)
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks: “wej Duj,” written by Kathryn Lyn, directed by Bob Suarez (CBS Eye Animation Productions)

The good news is that mercifully we don’t see yet another Doctor Who episode being nominated. The bad news is that with the exception of Star Trek: Lower Decks [Paramount+] and For All Mankind [Apple+] everything is on one of the major “net” channels — Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Disney+.  At least some of these certainly deserve the nomination, like The Expanse, and even Arcane, which is surprisingly good. For All Mankind is said to be excellent, but Apple TV+ has such a small subscriber base that it will probably get less support than it deserves.  But it is hard to escape the feeling that The Wheel of Time is riding on a vast fan base, and Loki on the shoulders of Disney.  Another 2022 strangeness is that WandaVision[Disney+] has been nominated for the Long Form although it appears in six 30 minute episodes.

There are two ways forward. The Saturn Awards do a much better job of rewarding good SF series work, so perhaps we should just retire the short form Hugo as irrelevant to the modern age.  Somehow, I don’t think this is going to happen, so I offer instead the following reforms:

  • The short form dramatic presentation Hugo should be retitled “Dramatic series Hugo” and the definition changed to exclude “single event” dramatic presentations.  If we want a Hugo for single events, including plays, a new award, or more likely a special occasional award, should be created.
  • The definition of the “Dramatic series Hugo” should be such that the nomination is for the series, not for particular episodes.
  • A minimum number of episodes should be required — I suggest three episodes of at least 40 minutes each, or six episodes of at least 20 minutes.  An open issue is whether to exclude or allow a series of theatrical films such as Twilight, but I lean toward excluding them.
  • The eligibility period should be changed from the previous year to at least the two previous years, and preferably the five previous years. This would allow time for new works to migrate to the larger platforms where they might actually be seen by a larger audience.
  • No series could win the award twice.  This would work against the domination of the award by a single series [Doctor Who] that has a large, organized fandom, or a single very popular series like Game of Thrones.  This raises the question of how to handle a “rebooted” series or something like Doctor Who which is periodically restarted with a new actor playing the title character.  Fairness suggests that a “rebooted” version of a series should once again be eligible to win even if a previous version of the show had already won the short form series Hugo.

It should be noted that anthology or highly episodic series might still win, but only by being consistently excellent.  So, there you have it — my plan to make the world a better place, one Hugo Award at a time!

[Reprinted by permission from MT Void.]