Thirty years ago, science fiction on television was largely aimed at children, or at most, a family audience. In Britain, Doctor Who and the shows of Gerry Anderson dominated a sparse landscape, with only Blake’s 7 and Sapphire and Steel attempting to raise the bar. In America, the output of Glen A Larson was superficial and generic – gadgets, women as objects, cute kids and cute animals, distracting the audience from the stock footage. Join Geek Chocolate as we examine how the landscape was terraformed and ask – what will come next?
Since the release of Star Wars, there had been efforts to emulate that success on television: the original Battlestar Galactica was so obviously influenced by the Adventures of Luke Skywalker that Lucasfilm initiated a lawsuit. Battlestar Galactica only lasted one season, the vast price tag unjustifiable for the ratings it was generating, but conversely Star Trek Phase Two, which was already in development to be the cornerstone of a proposed Paramount network, was reimagined as a feature film as a direct result of the box office smash of the summer of 1977.
Ironically, it was the runaway success of Star Trek IV The Voyage Home in 1986 which prompted Paramount to approach Gene Roddenberry to create Star Trek The Next Generation. This was a surprising move for a studio that had sought to minimise Rodenberry’s involvement since the release of Star Trek The Motion Picture, and he was keen to retain creative control. This was aided by the decision to put the show directly into syndication, where the original series had enjoyed such success after cancellation, as it was believed that selling it to small local channels rather than broadcasting on a national network would avoid interference.
It was ten years after the release of Star Wars that Star Trek returned to the small screen, with excitement fuelled by the months of advance publicity. The decision was made to avoid secrecy, so the fans would already know the characters, in order that they could immediately immerse themselves in the story, a strong contrast to restrictions on many current shows, but in the days before the internet, it was easier to control exactly what was and what was not released.
Any apprehension on the part of the long term fans dissolved when Encounter At Farpoint gathered an audience of 27 million people, and over seven seasons the show surpassed all expectations and launched not only the juggernaut Star Trek franchise of the nineties, but it opened the door for all the shows that flew in its wake, from Babylon 5 and Space: Above and Beyond right through to Firefly. In those years, there was never a time when a major television show did not feature a spaceship. It seemed as though the future was being beamed directly into our living rooms.
And yet despite technical advances over the last quarter century that have allowed shows like Battlestar Galactica to redefine what can be achieved on the small screen, the pendulum of fantastic television has swung away from outworld science fiction, and what once was common is now almost extinct. The cancellation of Stargate Universe means there for the first time since the Enterprise came under the command of Jean-Luc Picard, there is no major television series set aboard a spaceship in production on US television.
Perhaps this is in some ways a response to the cessation of the space shuttle programme. In July this year, the final flight of the Atlantis marked the end of an era of exploration that dated back to the late sixties, when the original Star Trek first reached the airwaves. With no clear way forward for NASA, perhaps it is with sadness and disappointment that television producers have decided to cast their eyes downwards, to the Earth rather than to the stars.
Perhaps space travel was regarded as something only for the privileged few, and the belief is that the audience desire something they can relate to, a human story, but with the message that each of them is unique and special, and can achieve greatness. Certainly, the last ten years have marked an increase in global concerns: terrorism, environmental instability, economic unrest, and in response, there has been a determination in recent television seasons for the network to promote superhero shows, possibly in response to the growing dissatisfaction of the public in their everyday lives.
Unfortunately, for a formula that has dominated comics for decades, few shows have managed to capture that magic. Only the iconic lead of Smallville has met with success echoing that of the Spiderman and X-Men movies. Heroes stunning ascent was followed by an equally public downfall, The Cape and No Ordinary Family each lasted only a brief season, and Wonder Woman never made it past the pilot.
In Britain, the contrary is true, both in success and style, as the teen anti-superheroes of Misfits not only trebled their audience between the first and second seasons, but picked up a BAFTA for Best Drama Series on the way. Whether the success of Thor and Captain America will further the US network’s attempts at a genre where they have had little success remains to be seen, but with The Avengers tipped to be the biggest film of next summer, it seems likely.
One of the surprise hits of last year was a direct comic adaptation, but of an altogether different nature, a show as graphic as its source material, The Walking Dead. Recognising that a generation who have grown up surrounded by the fantastic have now matured, are sometimes even in the creative roles themselves, there is now an established market for genre shows made specifically for an adult – and often post watershed – audience, concentrating on the drama, performance and production values as much as the wonder.
An argument could be made that the seeds for this were laid as far back as 1993, when The X Files debuted, but although it was undeniably a genre show, dabbling in science fiction, horror and fantasy over nine seasons, it was primarily a police procedural, albeit an unusual one, a standard television format in place since the 1950s. Nevertheless, it was a genuine global phenomenon which showcased cinema standards on television, as evidenced by the plethora of awards, creative and technical, it gathered, and the contribution of The X Files in legitimising the fantastic on television should not be overlooked.
It was a year after the final episode of that show, The Truth, that a truly bold and undeniable fantasy would be crafted for an adult audience. A sprawling mystery of magic, religion and Americana, it was called Carnivàle, and although only a third of the planned six seasons were produced, as the ratings were not strong enough to justify the high production costs, perhaps due to the willfully dense structure and intangible plotting, in those two years it gathered much critical acclaim and many awards.
Often compared to Twin Peaks, the greatest legacy of Carnivàle may be in what followed it, both tangentially, in showing that an audience existed for mature fantasy, and directly, in that season one showrunner Ronald D Moore’s reason for departure was to work on the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Continuing the themes of religion versus reason that were the hallmarks of both Deep Space Nine and Carnivàle, Battlestar Galactica was recognised as a groundbreaking show by the mainstream media, and is regarded by many as a modern classic.
While Battlestar Galactica was successful in engaging with a more sophisticated audience than would have watched the original twenty five years before, other shows that have specifically sought that same recogntion have struggled, particularly on the BBC. While Torchwood craves to be taken seriously as an adult show, boasting its credentials in every press release, the first two seasons did so in the manner of a hopelessly demanding teenager, and Outcasts, despite its achievements as a drama, failed to gather any audience at all.
With these shows becoming fewer on our screens, has the future now had its time? Where once science fiction was the preferred escapism of television executives, our ships are grounded, and our superheroes have lost their glamour. But all is not lost; new homes have been created and new audiences grown, where previously only mundane entertainment would be found.
The high production cost of pure science fiction and fantasy is the stumbling block for many shows before they are even greenlit, and compromise in the budget is the reason for many failures; Xena: Warrior Princess managed to control costs by shooting in New Zealand, Legend of the Seeker will never look anything other than cheap. Yet where networks now fear to go, cable networks have stepped up. First with Carnivàle then True Blood and now Game of Thrones, HBO has granted the same financial and artistic support as they give to their more conventional dramas, and this has been matched by AMC’s commitment to The Walking Dead.
It’s interesting to note that for years, the fantastic was regarded by networks, rightly or wrongly, as boy’s stuff, yet the show that has finally swept the female demographic isn’t the girly fantasy-lite of Ghost Whisperer or Medium. Women can embrace and champion the shows as enthusiastically as men, but it wasn’t representation of women’s issues they wanted, Patricia Arquette juggling parenting with visions of the dead, it was a couple of strapping young lads, Sam and Dean Winchester, kicking serious demon butt on Supernatural.
Always averse to trying anything that is not a proven formula, afraid that something daring could shock and alienate viewers, the networks only grasped this twenty years after audiences did. In the summer of ’87, it wasn’t the presence of Jami Gertz that made The Lost Boys the hit horror film it was okay for girls to love, it was Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland.
It is apparent that the supernatural is now in vogue, and almost as though it were a saturation marketing campaign, there is a slew of shows specifically targeted at different age groups, from the outright gore of The Walking Dead to the sexy shenanigans of True Blood, down through The Vampire Diaries, obviously strongly influenced the global phenomenon of Twilight, before stopping at Teen Wolf.
With that roster of shows, the only gap in the target markets are the pre-teens, but perhaps if the animated Buffy the Vampire Slayer adventures would ever be produced, that omission could be addressed. Whether Teen Wolf can match the success of Buffy or will more closely resemble the fate of the Friday the 13th and Freddy’s Nightmares shows remains to be seen. A direct movie spin-off, it has taken Teen Wolf twenty five years to crossover, making the five years Buffy took to make the journey seem a mere stroll.
Considering the success of the Harry Potter films, it is perhaps surprising that there has been no direct attempt to access that market; Ronald D Moore’s magical police procedural 17th Precinct, specifically described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups,” was not picked up by a network. The only other dabblings with magical television of recent years – The Witches of Eastwick and an Oz miniseries – were retreads of earlier works, television once again following an established cinema trend.
In one of his essays, Sir Arthur C Clarke once commented on failures of nerve and imagination, and in many ways that is the default position of television, a determination to always play a safe option, failing to capitalise on the notion that being different and individual is the central motif of the fantastic, that it is the central appeal to the potential audience. Unlike the general television audience, what is unique about a show is what is most likely to appeal to us.Give us what we already know, and that is when we will drift.
Perhaps that is why, after a quarter of a century of saturation bookended by two versions of Battlestar Galactica, science fiction set on spaceships, once the cornerstone that defined the genre, has now vanished from our screens. After Battlestar, what more was there to say?
Well, not quite. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there is currently no major live action show set aboard a spaceship in production. With a seventh season due to air in 2012, the Planet Express Ship flies on. In the words of Charles Stross, “the only science fiction TV series I’ve seen in the last decade and liked is Futurama.”