Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #862: Quo Vadis Sci-Fi TV

Yesterday I wrote about the cancellation of Fox's Terra Nova, and how it was probably a good thing, because the show really didn't have legs.

James Poniewozik of Time Magazine views it slightly differently, saying that even though he wasn't a fan of the show itself, its failure, among other things, will give networks an excuse to avoid doing "big science fiction" along the lines of Star Trek, and Terra Nova, preferring to stick with "little science fiction" which is how he classifies shows set in the "real world" with subtler science fiction twists like Alcatraz and Fringe.

Right now no American network is running a "big science fiction" show, set entirely within a science fiction universe, and the only English language shows of the "space opera" genre is Doctor Who from the UK.

It's not like American audiences can't get behind genre programming, even one set in a completely different world.  HBO is doing great business with the fantasy series Game Of Thrones, and ABC and NBC are enjoying some success with the "real world with a fantasy twist" shows like Once Upon A Time and Grimm.

And that's one of the problems.

During times of socioeconomic uncertainty and cynicism of the future, audiences tend to gravitate towards the fantasy genre. It's familiar, and harkens to an idealized past where simple goodness, and bravery is enough to defeat the bad guys and solve the world's problems.  Then there's also the simpler exposition of "A wizard did it," rather than acres of baffle-gab about "realigning the dilithium matrix to cause a cascade concussion wave in the wormhole's structural integrity fields."

Add on top of that the government of the nation that first landed men on the moon saying that space is too expensive, and that we have to pay former space rivals the Russians to hitch rides into orbit and not one inch farther, and the audience has no alternative but consider science fiction as having less connection to their lives than wizards and dragons. For audiences it is better to imagine entertainments from a realm of the completely impossible than from a realm of the theoretically possible, but highly improbable because some politician is just going to prevent it because it doesn't buy them any votes.

But all hope is not lost.

There are ways to change this sorry situation and get audiences connected back to science fiction, and maybe get the SyFy Channel to change its name back.

Here are some suggestions:


I know that networks think that they have to do stories about dystopias now because the audience is feeling cynical about the future.  While the audience can take a book or a movie set in a dystopia, they are leery about committing to a TV series, because they take comfort in the fact that the dystopian settings in books and movies have very specific endings, and a lot of the time those endings include the destruction and replacement of the dystopia.  

A TV series is an open ended commitment and it takes a very specific segment of the audience to commit to a show about people struggling under oppression and/or disaster week after week. The big thing is that segment of the audience willing to make that commitment is already dedicated to watching the weekly litany of misery and horror that is The Walking Dead

Now I'm not saying that their world has to be a golden utopia.  That's boring. The society should be flawed, of course, but it shouldn't be exponentially worse than the way life is today.  Especially since most attempts to imagine such a future is usually couched in some guy in Hollywood's attempt to be relevant by dragging out tropes that were last seen as daring and original in the 70s and 80s.


Science Fiction is all about discovering the new, but in ways that are remotely scientifically plausible. 

That means you must have a premise that holds the constantly possibility of something new coming up every episode. That's why travel, especially through space, time, and alternate universes, features so prominently in so many shows. Travel and exploration is all about possibilities, so it's easy.  However, a world of rapidly changing technological advancement can also hold the possibility of creating regular drama, it's just harder for both the writers and the audience.

Also, audiences are much more sophisticated, so the universe you present has to be more sophisticated.  That means functional economic and social systems.  Gene Roddenberry thought economics didn't play a part in his utopian view, so he deliberately left money and trade out of the equation.  It wasn't that obvious during the original series, since 90% of the people they met was either in the military or getting their salt sucked out.  However, as the new Trek shows came along, the universe expanded, but without any sort of functional economy, it left gaps in the logic in the shows.  Now while I'm probably the only one who might have complained about this, I suspect these gaps was one of the causes of the diminishing creative and audience returns of the Star Trek TV shows.


This is a personal prejudice of mine. I loved Star Trek, but the whole franchise used the whole "omnipotent all knowing energy being" crap so often it became a crutch. 

So if you're reading this and developing a science fiction show, please avoid it.  Give your aliens physical bodies, they can be animal, vegetable or mineral, just don't make them all glowy and all knowy.


Grand story arcs, especially in genre fiction, are extremely tempting. Lots of writers, especially those who are into science fiction, want to make their show the grand magnum opus to end all magnum opuseseses... However, there have been loads of shows that were built around a single plot/quest and 99% of them never got anywhere near the end of said quest.

Why did those shows fail?

Because their premises were not flexible.  They were too  tightly boxed in by the overarching story to do anything beyond it.  Even if you do get renewed and get to continue the story you are left with two options: 

A. Resolve the central story, but then be left with nothing else to do. 


B. Keep dragging out the central story to the point where the audience gets so damn sick of it all, they tune out because they can't bring themselves to care anymore.

That's why you need flexibility, so you can wrap up a story arc, and be able to bring in a new one to replace it, and have enough "one & done" episodes to entertain the casual viewers.


Doing science fiction well is not within the realm of possibility for a committee. To create a plausible science fiction universe you need someone at the helm with a clear and precise vision of the whole thing and what's going on, and what's going to happen.  Without a clear leader/vision the show becomes muddled, contradictory and incoherent, and will lose viewers, and any chance of being enjoyed by audiences in the future via reruns/home video.

Hopefully if you follow all these rules, and have a good show, you can last longer than Terra Nova.


  1. Personally, I think hat Furious D is himself a "omnipotent all knowing energy being" and just doesn't want the competition.

    I think your last point may be the most relevant to the future (or lack thereof) of "big science fiction" on television. In what's increasingly become a designed-by-committee medium, I can't see too many execs green-lighting a big-budget show without getting their fingers into it.

    Also, can I add:

    6. No Brannon Braga

  2. Did you just say NBC is "enjoying some success"?

  3. DMK - I am all knowing and mildly omnipotent, but I do have a physical form. ;)

    ILDC- A little success, relative to NBC's usual status as total bottom of the shit-heap.

  4. big SF has found a home on the video game consoles. the 3rd MASS EFFECT just came out and there is a HALO 4 on the way.

    The thing with games is ME is a RPG that means this is a SF universe where the player interacts and LIVES in it. They can explore and discover at will.

  5. So what you are saying is go the STARGATE: SG-1 route?

  6. Blast Hardcheese8/3/12 1:14 pm

    Stargate: SG-1 is a good example. The spinoff SG:Universe went 'dark and gritty' a little too often, and I think that may be one reason it's no longer with us. (Which is a shame, because I love Robert Carlysle)

    Personally, I would like to see SF TV go pulp in a big way and embrace its' inner Edgar Rice Burroughs. Unfortunately, the new "John Carter" film may tank hard enough to tarnish such notions. I've heard good things about it online, but the marketing campaign for this one looks so blah and generic I can't get my hopes up.

    But that gets into how crap Hollywood is at marketing in general, and I've ranted on that before.

  7. Kit- Never watched Stargate: SG-1 since I didn't care for the original movie and all the "Chariots of the Gods"/Ancient Aliens crap. But I will give it kudos for lasting something like 10 years, which is an impressive run for a genre show.

  8. . . .because the audience is feeling cynical about the future.

    It's not supposed to work like that. When things look bad in the real world, the entertainment world is supposed to buck us up and provide some light entertainment with an optimistic theme.

    No, wait. This is Hollywood isn't it. If they're suffering by forgoing that second Rolls this year, then EVERYBODY is going to suffer you bastasts!!