Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Cinemaniacal: How To Sing A Space Opera

Earlier this week I talked about the Great Space Opera Drought of 2011. For those of you too lazy to click the link, or scroll down the blog's front page, I'll sum it up for you. For the first time in a very long time there will be no new live action science fiction shows set in Outer Space premiering on American television, leaving the British made Doctor Who, pretty much alone when it comes to delivering new stories set in the final frontier.

In that post I explained why the networks and cable channels are leery about putting Outer Space adventure shows, or Space Operas, on the air. Some of them were commercial, some of them were socio-cultural, and all are in that blog, so click the damn link when you're done reading this piece.

Today, I'm going to discuss what makes a good television Space Opera, in the hopes that maybe my advice can somehow get the genre back on the air.


When you create a science fiction show that's going to last any time you need to have all your ducks in a row. You can start by asking yourself these questions...

What sort of culture does your hero come from?

What sort of cultures will your hero meet?

Will your heroes meet aliens, or just different kinds of humans?

If so, what kinds of aliens will you use?

The answers to these questions can be arrived at if you do something very simple. Study history, economics, and Earth's widely varied cultures. They give both a grounding in familiar reality, and inspiration for new stories that you probably wouldn't have thought of before you did your research. Economics, especially economic history, is also important, because it can teach you about the sort of cultures that advance and those that stagnate, and how such cultures interact, because economics is really just the study of human/material/cultural interaction.

And speaking of research, you can't have science fiction without science, which brings us to our next question...

What's the technology level of the various cultures featured, and what rules do these technologies follow?

Now you might think I'm being a nerdy nelly nit-picker, but establishing rules for your technology is really important. In TV space opera technology is like a comic book heroes super powers, it can do incredible things, but it has limits. Superman has his kryptonite, if you need me to draw you a picture. You need these rules because without them you will create problems for your characters, then have them "recalibrate the di-hydrogen monoxide vortex expulsion apparatus"* and suddenly the problem is solved. The
Star Trek franchise pretty much flogged that horse to death, so it can only be used sparingly and according to some pretty firm rules.


When you set the premise for your space show, you can easily limit yourself despite being set in the limitless expanse of the Universe. One common trap to establish a limited setting, or a limited purpose to the premise.

A limited setting is when you create a show around a single space colony that doesn't interact with other colonies, or alien races, and just build stories around their struggle to survive in a harsh environment. That sounds all nice and dramatic, but it can also become really boring really quickly. You can only do so many episodes about a small group of people dealing with basic survival issues before you start repeating yourself, and then start grasping at narrative straws, and the audience just gives up and tunes out. Science Fiction, especially Space Opera is about creating a sense of wonder from encountering new things, and your not going to get that with a bunch of people sitting on a rock griping.

Now a limited purpose narrative is another easy trap. That's when you characters have to go around space for a very specifically designed purpose, a sort of single quest for the whole series. I remember seeing an unsold pilot for a science fiction show, it had some clever ideas, a freaky looking space-ship, and some characters with potential. It also had a limited purpose. Basically all the characters were on a mission to rescue a little girl who had been kidnapped by unpleasant aliens who wanted to use her brain.

Sounds cool, for a movie, but when you're doing a series and set out such a limited purpose for your story you have two options. Either extend the quest to the point where the audience doesn't really give two flying shits about the how it's going to end, because they know it's not going to end before cancellation, or build up to a very big ending for that quest, leaving you scrambling for a new quest for your characters.

Grand story arcs are fine, but remember that they have limitations. You must give yourself, and your show wiggle room, or else once that first deal is done, so is your show.

So create a show centered around a premise that promises your heroes will encounter as wide a variety of peoples, places, and things, as you can imagine.


Too many shows have tried to reach for the stars with cardboard cutouts for characters. The Cocky Macho Rebel Who Doesn't Shave, the Stoic Logician, the Rigid Military Guy, the Alien/Android learning about emotions, etc., etc... Create fresh new characters, with their own needs, wants, habits, quirks, and anything else that makes them interesting and human, whether they are human or not.


A) The Glowy All-Knowy Energy Being. What started out as a novel idea and statement about the possible end of the evolutionary process has become not only a cliche, but a great Deus Ex Machina for lazy writers who have put themselves into a corner and need it solved by some time-space bending cosmic know it all.

B) The All One Thing Culture. One thing that used to bug me about the Klingons was how they got to their level of technology, when everyone is a warrior and all they do is fight anything and everything they encounter, and where the hell do they get their food? Did they have some sort of Spartan/Helot type situation...? Anyway, I digress into the realm of nit-picking which is something you need to do when you create your show, so asshats like me don't do it afterwards. The cultures you create need diversity, and from that diversity springs potential for fresh new stories. If a culture absolutely has to be all one thing to make some sort of point, then create a plausible excuse for it. Doctor Who's Sontarans are all warriors, but they didn't evolve that way, or invent their technology. They were genetically engineered and then given technology to fight on behalf of their makers, then those makers died out, it left them with advanced technology and a taste for scrapping the bejibbers out of all comers.

It's not rocket science, it's science fiction.

C) The All One Thing Planet. Habitable planets that are all jungle, all desert, all forest, are all boring. You can have your characters land in a jungle or a desert, but having the whole planet that way is weak science, and boring science fiction.

D) The Obnoxious Alien That Demands The Heroes Follow Some Completely Irrational Taboo Or Face Death. You know what I'm talking about, those contrived situations where a crew member has violates some irrational law of some planet, and the crew has to kiss ass to get them back. One I'll always remember is the Star Trek: TNG episode where Wesley Crusher crushes a flower, and is sentenced to death, and Picard has to figure out a way to solve the situation. My method would have been to burn their cities to the ground until he's returned, but I tend to have a low tolerance for assholes. Anyway, ditch this cliche, it's lazy writing.


I'm being deadly serious here. Networks have to make money on just about every inch of a TV show, that's why they like shows set in the present, or near past, over shows set in the far future. My advice, have a vibrant future with a thriving economy, and that economy just happens to have many of the same products that we enjoy today, but with a futuristic twist.

Anyway, I hope these tips prove useful and we can get some spaceships flying again soon.

*Techno-Babble Translation: "recalibrate the di-hydrogen monoxide vortex expulsion apparatus" means "jiggle the handle on the toilet."


  1. All good solid suggestions. Character is important but I don't think television has time for creating a bunch of new character tropes. Television is for the familiar. People want to be comfortable in their living rooms and nothing makes a tv audience uncomfortable like trying to figure out where a character fits in.

    Western society has become so feminized and conversely so overpowering that we cannot even imagine an enemy strong enough to threaten us without us supporting them. How many episodes of 24 did we see with the rich white man behind it all. It is like 'The White Man's Burden', all that matters is Western society all the time. Sure, you show off the quaint natives in their colorful costumes but only as props for what's really important; Western society scoring points against other Westerners. That is where current Space Opera and Scifi is sucking hardest.

    Look at the new Battlestar Galactica that was a great space opera but it suffered the fatal flaw of making people responsible for the cylons. Utter stupidity, the writers couldn't even think of something original. And at the end the 'angels' that were guiding the people, overseeing their journey of enlightenment weren't so much angels but cruel demiurge types enjoying their voyeuristic trip with the humans/cylons. And people didn't choose to start over, they choose Death as their final solution. You can't get much more self hating than that.

    T.V. needs tropes and can slowly introduce their own. Star Trek TOS had alien races, Romulans stood in for the Chinese (resource poor, 'inscrutable', complex, and complicated) with Roman trappings, the Klingons stood in for the Russians (slapdash style, central authority, continual cold war animosity, militaristic society), and due to Leonard Nimoy's clever work, the Vulcans made decent Jews with a stoic outward demeanor. The Federation was of course the USA back when it was still cool to be the USA. Combat! was still on the air.

    So they should do something different. Something low budget and something subversive. Have a real 'Star Trek'. Base the story arc on the Boer's Trek into the interior. Make the universe one where human habitable planets make sense and humans on other planets make sense (or at least very human like aliens). There are plenty of scenarios laid out by better writers than I am so I won't hash them out.

    Something new is required. Something that breaks the molds and makes people think.

  2. 'My method would have been to burn their cities to the ground until he's returned, but I tend to have a low tolerance for assholes.''s just Wesley Crusher. He ain't worth the ammo.

  3. But Fawkes is much more interesting and he's banging Codex, so that makes him much cooler.

  4. Rainforest Giant-

    The cliche character or "trope" that bugs me the most is the poseur tough guy who never shaves. Damn that bugs me.

    There is a certain amount of cultural self-loathing that's endemic in Hollywood that seeps into too many TV shows. I think we need a rule that anyone writing a new SF show has to spend time outside of California dealing with non-Californians who live real lives.

    Striker Z-

    It's nothing to do with the value of the specific crew-member, and everything to do with the principle of the matter. The principle being that if anyone crew member was to die needlessly, it would be because of one of my orders. ;-)

    Also you have to work out the phaser cannons every once in a while to keep the weapons officers sharp. Nothing makes better phaser target practice than thousands of civilians scurrying for cover. ;-)

  5. 'poseur tough guy who never shaves' That one gets my goat too. It is so endemic that military and police who should be clean shaven or at least have neatly trimmed facial hair of some kind have that jackass three-day-o-clock shadow of Don Johnson. Bad enough that any non-serious (sci-fi, horror, etc) movie that has the military has them all looking as individual as guys in a 'pride parade' to add stupidity on that of giving the guy hair that would get him written up daily and eventually shit-canned is just lazy and stupid.