The Current State Of Science Fiction On Tv

Well, it certainly looks like the doom and gloom brigade is out in full force this week. First, Ridley Scott dumps all over SF films, then Michael Cassut sees a poor SF TV landscape in his “The Spirit of the Times” article for SciFi Weekly. Basically. Cassutt uses Jane Espenson’s article for The New Republic as jumping off point to show that SF, as most SF fans know it, is dead on TV, replaced with the whole ‘Chosen One’ angle to storytelling.

In an effort to see if Cassutt has a point, and I think he does, SciFi Fodder reviews the current state of SF on TV, and looks at the new SF-ish shows. And what do you know? They all are a form of Espenson’s thesis. But I think its actually worse than it appears. Out of all the new shows, the only ones that are really SF are: Bionic Woman, Chuck (light), and The Sarah Conner Chronicles. Journeyman is probationary as we don’t know the ‘how’ of his time travel. So, that’s 3 of 28 new shows that I would consider to be SF. Not good. And they all are a variation of the Chosen one theme.

Looking at returning shows, I count 5 shows that are SF: Galactica, Eureka, LOST, Heroes and Jericho. You could argue that Eureka follows Espenson’s idea, but the others clearly don’t. The thing I notice right away is that the overtly SF shows, Galactica and Eureka are on SciFi, not broadcast TV. And the other three are ensemble shows that have SF elements to their stories. Two are big hits, while the other is on life support for 7 episodes.

Looking at the recent past, we see that Invasion, Threshold and Surface never made it past a first season. All were ensembles, and all were present day alien invasion stories. You could argue that with three similarly themed shows, they were doomed to failure. I’m not sure American audiences are ready for a real SF alien invasion story. Clearly they aren’t ready for the watered down ones they got.

I think that SF on TV isn’t in as a bad a shape as Cassutt thinks, especially considering LOST and Heroes. But going forward, it looks like the prevailing feeling in TV land is Espenson’s idea. Will there ever be another overtly SF hit show like Star Trek on mainstream TV? I don’t know, but my guess would be no. The place you’ll find it will possibly on cable, but more likely on the Internet. But until then, I’ll keep recording and watching the SF shows I like, hoping to see more SF.

19 thoughts on “The Current State Of Science Fiction On Tv”

  1. I would argue that Eureka is more about community than any particular chosen person. The Sheriff can’t really solve anything alone, and it is is “everyman” common sense that the community of brilliant scientists sometimes need.

    But that’s just me.

  2. If you’re going to classify “Heroes” as a sci fi TV show, then (with regards to the previous post), the state of sci-fi movies is actually pretty good, given all the superhero stuff we’ve gotten in the last few years.

    Personally though, I’m hesitant to call Spider-Man 3 or Transformers “science fiction”, at least not in the sense we think of it. And the same goes for Heroes.

    (Incidentally, I also note you left Doctor Who and Torchwood off your list, though I realize they’re British).

  3. Wow, plenty of doomsayers for me to poo-poo all over. Honestly, I don’t expect there to be a lot of scifi on network TV. I’m happy when I see it, but it IS a “niche” genre, thus the spawning of an entire network devoted to it. SciFi fans tend to forget that there are a LOT of people out there who not only don’t appreciate science fiction, but some who flat out hate it… kind of how I feel about westerns and most sitcoms. Lots of good scifi shows don’t make it not because they aren’t good scifi shows, but because they aren’t good MAINSTREAM shows, and the networks make their money from the mainstream. Surface, Threshold, and Invasion were all great (okay, somewhat good) scifi shows. I wasn’t surprised when they got canceled, though, because none of them had the mainstream appeal that Heroes has today. It’s partially in the marketing, and mostly in the writing. Just because someone can create a kickass scifi concept that makes geeks wet themselves doesn’t mean they can implement it in such a way that people who don’t dress up like Chewbacca once a year will enjoy it.

    The same goes for movies, although I do expect there to be more science fiction represented in the movie medium than in TV. With movies theres an odd thing going on where science fiction is less of a genre and more of an accident. What Hollywood makes a lot of are ACTION movies, because that’s what people want to see. Some of those movies take place in the future, or involve robots and/or clones, but the setting (and thus, the genre) is secondary. So what you get is an action movie that happens to be about robots instead of terrorists. Some people may not want to call those scifi movies, but they are. The same thing happens with horror movies that have genetic mutations instead of supernatural demons or regular-human serial killers. If we get in the habit of not claiming these as scifi movies, then yes… the genre is severely under-represented and appears to be dying. Why? Because the non-hybrid scifi movies like Solaris and AI are, to the mainstream audience, boring as HELL and not worth $5.00 to see. We may be angry at what the industry did to I-Robot, but I’d take that movie over Bicentennial Man ANY day. Sure, that’s just my opinion, but a lot of opinion adds up to the fact that people would rather see robots beat the hell out of each other.

    I take my scifi fix wherever I can get it, and I tend to be more inclusive than exclusive. If Spiderman and Transformers aren’t science fiction…umm…. they’re science fiction.

    Finally, I’m not worried about what the mainstream media chooses to put on TV and in movies. This is the 21st century. The ability to make high-quality entertainment is no longer an exclusive right held by Hollywood. We can *almost* produce our own entertainment offerings… and make them GOOD… without sitting around and waiting for California to tell us what we’re going to watch this season. We’re not there yet, but in a few years, TV shows/seasons will be irrelevant and we’ll be talking about what good genre shows are on YouTube this week.

  4. Why does everybody hate Bicentennial Man so much?

    It’s one of the very few Robin Williams movies I actually liked!

  5. I saw Bicentennial Man on TV a few weeks ago and it wasn’t bad, especially given the reviews and comments I’d seen. There were a couple of painfully bad scenes but large parts of it were done quite well.

  6. And with Stargate: Atlantis, that would actually be six returning shows.

    Seriously, I know it is apparently not everyone’s thing but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Here we have an actual substantial franchise, for TV SF second only to Star Trek, but seemingly invisible to some folks in the community. It has:

    1) Theatrical movie (Stargate)

    2) Series (Stargate: SG-1) that ran for 10 years (longer than any one of the Star Trek series. In fact has there been any American SF series that ran longer?) which have three new movies continuing it coming out on DVD.

    3) Spawned a spin off series (Stargate:Atlantis) that is starting its fourth season soon

    4) Lines of novel: more than a dozen (and new ones still coming out) for the first series and more than a half dozen (and new ones still coming out) for the spin off series

    5) It has lines of comics, books about the series and sold out dedicated conventions.

    Apparently Stargate is the Rodney Dangerfield of SF TV….

  7. How is LOST sci fi but “Journeyman is probationary as we don’t know the ‘how’ of his time travel”.

    As if anything has been explained on LOST, and that is after 3 seasons.

    Personally, outside of using a deus ex machina, I see no way LOST can be sci fi in the literal sense.

  8. speaking of which what the hell is Heroes doing in the sci fi column?!?!

    Magically powered super knights running around on quests does not strike me as sci fi themes…when did comics become sci fi?

    I think what is going on is that some snooty sci fi geeks have chosen to distort sci fi all in an attempt to distance themselves from being called lowly fantasy fans.

    coming soon: Redefining Sci fi to incorporate “American Gods” and “Time Bandits” despite their previous and more accurate genre name of fantasy.

  9. And Stargate: Atlantis is what?

    Chopped liver?

    Sometimes I get the feeling that SG1/SGA are ignored by the US media because they are made in Canada, and the Canadian media because they are broadcast first in the US.

    Morjana

  10. When did comics become science fiction?

    When have they NOT been science fiction? A lot of the popular characters have origins that are solidly rooted in the the genre:

    Hulk? Science fiction.

    Spider Man? Science fiction

    X-Men? Science fiction

    Captain America (RIP)? Science fiction

    Fantastic Four? Science fiction.

    fsking SUPERMAN? Science fiction.

    Just because you don’t like the comics and/or the movie treatments doesn’t mean you can banish them from the genre. And unless the driving factor in the development of superpowers in the Heroes TV show turns out to be demons or magic… it, too, is science fiction.

    No, what’s really going on is snooty scifi fans are being too exclusive as to what they will claim as scifi. I guess it has to have robots and spaceships to be scifi? Or is it mandatory that scifi be set in the future? If so… Stargate and the Six Million Dollar man aren’t science fiction. How absurd is that?

  11. I tend to agree with DarkIcon. I prefer a more inclusive view of what SF is, hence:

    Heroes – powers attained by people due to a probably evolutionary shift. SF!

    LOST – mysterious island, hidden from the world behind a potential event horizon, with some strange magnetic anomalies. SF!

    It’s also why I classify Raiders Of The Lost Ark as SF. At the very least, you can view it as alternate history. SF!

  12. Is it fair to say that just because one tiny aspect of its premise can be explaned by science that a fictional show is science fiction?

    Heroes hasn’t yet and is unlikely to explain the origin of the powers. As a result, might it not just be a pure fiction show that isn’t capable of being fit into a niche?

    LOST is pure fantasy all the way. There’s no way it will end up having a cohesive psuedo-scientific explanation for that is happening there.

    Futurama is coming in the 2008 TV season. I’d say that’s a great sci-fi show to look forward to.

    Reaper has potential – no idea how it will pan out.

    Other shows that I don’t consider sci-fi but yet fit JP’s broad definition include CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Ghost Whisperer, Moonlight, Numb3rs, Pushing Dasies (note this is officially listed as sci-fi by the network despite my opinion on the matter), and Cavemen.

    Burn Notice (an excellent show on USA) could also fit the sci-fi category in many ways – unless it really is that easy to create cell-phone bugs, wiretaps, napalm, and carbombs.

  13. fsking SUPERMAN? Science fiction.

    I really don’t see the difference between able to fly without wings because of a yellow sun and casting spells because of a deal one made with the elf queen.

    Comics may have sci fi elements but in their heart they are fantasy.

  14. Good point.

    And personally, I don’t see the difference between going into the future by sitting on a fancy chair with a big spinning wheel on the back and doing so by casting a spell. So The Time Machine is fantasy, too.

    At their heart, comics are fantasy. That’s true. But if the fantastic elements are explained in terms of science instead of magic or some other means, they’re also science fiction.

    And there’s no law that says a piece of work can’t be both science fiction AND fantasy (and horror and crime drama and etc.)

    I guess I should also point out that, so far, nobody has mentioned Smallville as a genre TV show. Even if you hate the show, it is about an alien struggling to fit in to human society while contending with other aliens and individuals mutated by radiation. In what way is that not science fiction? Remember… you don’t have to LIKE it in order to claim it as genre. So maybe the problem is that there just isn’t enough scifi that we actually LIKE on television. But the genre is represented, no doubt.

  15. With Bionic Woman and Journeyman coming on NBC of all channels, I think we’ve entered a new era where sci-fi is suddenly cool enough to be mainstream. I for one, am happy for that — even if all the shows were bad, at least there is a wide acceptance of the genre at this point, and studios/networks aren’t afraid to make this kind of material.

  16. Comics may have sci fi elements but in their heart they are fantasy.

    When I say comics I mean superhero comics…

    Obviously comics like Alien Legion are sci fi.

    And yes mentioning Alien Legion dates me….that and I hate Warren Ellis.

  17. Its blatently obviouse that networks have absolutly no Idea what people want to watch.  The single largest group of people watching TV are folks over 40, more specifically those who are retired, yet mainstream media continues to repeditivly target youth.  The younger you are, it seems the less intelligence is passed down, thus the decline in intelligible television.  I am in my 30s and because my generation was into scifi, Trek TNG did really well with us.  Even I can admit, my father was much more patient with figuring out problems, would spend the time to do so, and didnt believe in a calculator. He got his stories from a book, me from a cathode ray tube.  Now our youth are so entrawled with big explosions, and sticking their face against the screen of a gaming console, that they dont have the attention span to actually care about a story line.   The most popular thing on TV is lost, which has no story line that I can detect, and IS NOT SCIFI.  Its just confusing. 

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