Sunday, 4 September 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #796: Finale For The Final Frontier

The blog io9 made an interesting observation about the upcoming Fall 2011 TV season as the first in a very, very long time to not include any live action, American made, shows set in outer space, not even on the Sci-Fi SyFy Network. What little American made science fiction is getting on TV is decidedly Earth-bound, and even then they're outnumbered by shows with a decidedly fantasy and/or horror bent.

Even on the big screen the outer-space science fiction adventure, or Space Opera, is becoming a rare beast. Most science fiction movies dealt either with aliens coming to Earth to battle US Marines, or cowboys, leaving J.J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek one of the few big screen efforts that went the other way around.

This wasn't always the case. There was time when people were lining up to see heroes and villains pile into their rocket ships the blast the living crap out of each other with their laser cannons, and the movie studios and TV networks were happy to give it to them.

But not anymore.


Well, there are several reasons, both coldly economic, and emotional.


COST: Pitch a space opera to a network or studio and the first thing that comes to their mind is a dollar sign, and not in a good way. You mention space opera and they think big special effects, big sets for alien planets, long and involved production schedules involving lots of technical people, and the big money that studios and networks can't help but spend on them.

Of course anyone living in the real world with an internet connection to YouTube knows that such things can now be done cheaper, quicker, and more realistically than ever before. But studio and network executives don't live in the real world, and generally leave all non-pron related internet stuff to their assistants.

PROFITS: Space opera shows tend to have long healthy afterlives beyond their initial airing, even if they're considered a ratings failure. The original Star Trek, and Firefly were considered costly failures when they originally aired, but went on to more lucrative existences in reruns, home video, and most profitably, licensed merchandise. That's all well and good for the studio and producers that own the show, but if you're a network that's not corporately connected with owning the show, then you're out in the cold. Networks and cable channels that don't own a piece of a particular show, have to make their money in the initial airing, or not at all, but have to pay to make the show as part of the "license fee" paid to air it.

Imagine you're pitching your Space Opera to a network. If they don't own the studio you're making it with, they don't want to run the risk of paying a lot of money to make it, without the usual cushion of product placement revenues, see it fail on their airing, get reborn in reruns, and make you and your studio a pretty packet, while they get something between jack and shit for their efforts.


CYNICISM: Space Opera is all about optimism. The optimism that we can beat the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of surviving the vacuum of space, and in most cases breaking the speed of light is kind of essential to Space Opera. We're just not feeling all that optimistic lately. Our world is racked with turmoil, political, social, & economic malaise, and the fizzling out of the once hopeful space program. That's why so much space on the big and small screens have been given over to fantasy and horror. For Space Opera to work people have to at least expect a future, and when they don't they retreat to the magic, mythology, and even the monsters of the past.

STAR TREK: The Star Trek franchise set the standard for Space Operas on television. The original series spawned lucrative rerun and movie franchises, while The Next Generation was a smash from day one and it chugged merrily along until it fizzled out with the creatively confused Enterprise prequel series.

Many have tried to imitate it, others tried to break away from it, only to be caught in many of the show's familiar tropes. The problem is that nowadays the whole conceit of the show, a utopian future where there is no poverty, no wealth, and everyone works in some way for an all powerful, all knowing, and all wise government, and its military arm Starfleet, rings hollow in our more educated and jaded times, and illustrates a shocking naivete on the part of the creators behind the show, and was one of the main reasons for the TV franchise's eventual fizzling out, and I'll get back to that in a minute...

Where many shows tried to imitate
Star Trek, with most failing, forgotten, others tried to break the increasingly restrictive mold. One of the first to try was Lexx, a Canadian/German co-production that more popularity in Europe than in North America. Where Star Trek was about brave government employees trekking through space to spread peace and gain knowledge, Lexx was about a emotionally scarred coward, an undead assassin, a mutant nymphomaniac, and a love-sick android's head, flying around in a stolen phallic spaceship/super-weapon looking for a new home, or at least a place where they can exercise their baser instincts. Where Star Trek's crews sought peace above all, the crew of the Lexx regularly destroyed whole planets that got in their way.

The show was just a little too campy in both style and substance to become part of the pop culture zeitgeist, but another one did...

Firefly (2002) tried to illustrate what a Federation like society would actually be like without going off into camp parody. The show's ruling Alliance was a corrupt inefficient behemoth, run by politically connected elites who hoarded all the wealth and power, while denying the means of anyone else legally creating new wealth through either meddling bureaucracy, or outright repression, while buying off discontent from the stagnant underclass with entitlements and/or the promise of more goodies courtesy of their high technology and the resources of less developed planets.

The characters were outlaws, forced to be that way because the state gave them no other option, tooling around from planet to planet, and struggling to survive. A pretty bold indictment of what was once the utopian dream.

Which brings me back to
Star Trek.

As the shows,
Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager progressed they felt the need to go beyond the "alien/weird planet of the week" format to show more of Federation society and its relations with its neighbors. DS9 was surprisingly critical, showing an often unfair, capricious, and hypocritical heart beating beneath the utopian technocratic facade. Voyager was an attempt to get back to the show's roots of explorations and alien encounters, but the curtain was already lifted and the whole ringing hollow thing had begun.

Enterprise was doubly cursed. It was an attempt to combine the classical exploration/alien encounter format, while showing the warts & all elements of the birth of the Federation. However, I got the impression that the plans to show the warts and all were blocked by a combo of fan and corporate pressure hoping to re-grab the lightning in a bottle moment that made the original series & first spin-off a cultural phenomenon.

Unable to fulfill its original grand designs, Enterprise fizzled out into a parade of cheap fan service, eventually having a finale that should have been a big adventure, but was just a game on the more popular Next Generation's holodeck.

Because the show had been denied its chance to break ground, it died prematurely, but network executives don't realize that. All they can see is the surface, and the surface notion with Enterprise is: "If even a Star Trek space show can fail, why bother doing anything else."

This brings me to the most recent movie. J.J. Abrams' movie succeeded because it was a reboot of the original formula, boiled down to the basic essence, without the societal elements that rang so hollow to today's audiences. They even went so far to declare that it was set in an alternate timeline separate from the other series.

Of course, here come the whole "surface notion" idea again, and now studio executives look at Star Trek, and think: "Only a Star Trek reboot movie can succeed." Creating a double edged sword of creative studio disinterest.

If a show set in space is to succeed it needs to forge its own path, away from Star Trek, but it's unlikely that a network, or studio will give such a show a chance.

What do you think about the dearth of space adventures on the big and small screen? Leave your thoughts in the comments...


  1. Let's see, you have R.Lee Ermey and you make 'Melrose Space'. You had the dude from 'Quantum Leap' and you make a muddled, muddy, series designed to fill in when a network needed something for syndication. Show after show was worthless from inception or worse destroyed by every person who could 'put his stamp' on the show but had no creative talent.

    I hate what all the channels but especially 'sy fy' has done to space opera. Science fiction can be done on the cheap. But Syfy screws with it all the time making movies that literally have cardboard sets and worse acting. I hate their Gatoroid vs Sharkacroc crap that they run. What is up with that? Why do they keep making those horrible movies?

  2. The SyFy movies cheap to make, and people watch them for camp value.

  3. Cheap can't be the only factor, I mean at some point doesn't the management say, "Man, I do not want to be associated with this crap". I know people watch it for the camp. Occasionally I do myself but wouldn't even something mildly low quality attract more viewers and thus more advertisers?

  4. Dirty McDingus Sezs:
    This is where one must retreat to a far FAR distant shore to get my Space Opera on now~ Japan!
    Where even there such ideas sputter out, but I get the opportunity to still enjoy its embers:
    -Space Battleship Yamato (Live Action)- that retools an old anime into a semi "cheap" star trek style special effects show.
    -Heroic Age- An actual Space Opera already fogotten by Japan that was an actual SPACE OPERA!
    -Outlaw Star- In the vein of 'Firefly' that lead that live action show to such an extent it looked like Whedon Stole most of his ideas off this very show!
    -Cowboy Bebop- Yet another classic Anime that also at the very least planet hopped around the Solar System.
    But alas outside of ~Yamato, most mentioned here are still not current...

  5. I have in the works a very intelligent political/military sci-fi set 100 years in teh fiture that is basically a band of brothers in space.

    First of all If I producted it

    1. It would be made in a miniseries format for a pay cable net like HBO.

    2. It would be EPIC in scale but low cost to produce. It will nto be some costly ego trip like avatar.

  6. Space Operas have a new home, on VIDEO GAME CONSOLES.

    Look all the major space based enterntainment franchises ahve been VG's.

    HALO - XBOX exclusive
    Dead Space
    Mass Effect

    games and sf have a really close relationship, one of the first two major arcade hits were Space Invaders and Asteroids.

  7. Dirty McDingus Sezs:
    Of the four mentioned above from what Burnaska wrote; only (perhaps) 'Mass Effect' might reach the level of E.E. Doc Smith, 'Banner of the Stars', 'Legend of the Galactic Heroes' or 'Heroic Age' as to be considered a "Space Opera". i.e. GRAND SPACE adventure with travels thru Hundreds of planets and don't forget MASSIVE SPACESHIP BATTLES!
    Space Opera is really only found to a limited degree in PC GAMES only like 'Sins of the Solar Empire', 'Homeworld', and EVE online.