Friday, August 26, 2011

Oh Lords of Kobol, Where are the Hard Science Fiction Films & TV Shows?

Science fiction is a genre that has been popular for a long time. Some of the earliest films were science fiction (A Trip to the Moon, Metropolis) and television shows as well (Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone). But what exactly is science fiction? Sci-fi, as the genre is commonly called, is based on scientific principles and discoveries, taking scientific fact and postulating scenarios and consequences of scientific progress and events. The more the story is based in scientific reality, the purer, or “harder,” the science fiction. Examples of hard sci-fi include 2001: A Space Odyssey for its depiction of life in space and Gattaca because of its portrayal of genetic engineering. Science fiction has expanded over time; many include fantasy because some stories blend the two like Star Wars (there are aliens and spaceships, but the Force is a mystical energy that binds all living things), and other types of fiction have been mixed into the sci-fi/fantasy bowl: cyberpunk, steampunk, paranormal, and supernatural. If a piece of fiction has to do with something techie, weird, odd, or mystical, then lately it has received the Sci-Fi label. While I’m all for inclusion and the expansion of the genre, why has the amount of hard science fiction in films and television diminished over the past few years?

One answer to that question was given to us when the Sci-Fi channel changed its name to Syfy back in 2009. The people in charge at that time said that Sci-Fi was too associated with geeks, a group of people they assumed all lived in their parents’ basement and played video games all day. While hardcore sci-fi geeks were good enough to help launch the network back in 1992, they were considered undesirable by 2009. The channel’s name change was to make the network more accessible and appealing to mainstream audiences. Did the change work? Unfortunately, yes. I say unfortunately because I am a geek, and I don’t like being abandoned. By the end of 2009, a lot of traditional science fiction was off the air at Syfy: Stargate SG-1 ended in 2007 and 2009 saw the last seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Atlantis. Two promising shows debuted in 2009, but Caprica was gone before anyone could find it, and Stargate Universe was recently cancelled. The most traditional science fiction shows currently on the air are Eureka, a light, quirky and funny sci-fi show, and Sanctuary, which is about keeping the knowledge of abnormals away from humans while trying to learn from them. Although Sanctuary has been renewed, Eureka has been cancelled, not due to poor ratings, but because the show doesn’t have a high profit margin. Sanctuary has survived because it is a cheap show to produce; it is shot mostly using green screen technology, has minimal sets, and rarely shoots on location. However, I worry about its fate; the show is poorly promoted and does not fit in with the rest of Syfy’s schedule.

What does Syfy mostly have on the air now? Paranormal shows, science fantasy, and wrestling. Eureka airs on Mondays with Warehouse 13 and Alphas. Warehouse 13 is science fantasy; secret service agents are stationed in South Dakota and find artifacts, objects imbued with special powers, to bring back to the warehouse for safe keeping. Like Eureka, the show is quirky and funny; the cast has great chemistry and timing. Ending Monday night is Alphas, a superhero show that doesn’t know if it wants to be Heroes or X-men: Team Office Cubicle. Another popular and heavily promoted show is about a woman who investigates paranormal happenings in a small Maine town called Haven. Filling out the rest of the week are reruns of The Ghost Whisper, shows about finding real ghosts, a program about tracking legends, B-grade creature features, and wrestling. Syfy’s been teasing audiences with the possibility of giving the Warehouse 13 character H.G. Wells a show set during the time she was a Warehouse agent; however, no official announcement has been made. The biggest tease is the Battlestar Galactica spin-off Blood and Chrome. Although the project’s been approved by Syfy, no debut date has been announced. Many are concerned that the project could be shelved by the network or only made available either online or on DVD/Blu-ray, and Syfy knows that if they release it only on disc that the fans will complain, but will buy, and that’s all they care about. With limited hard science fiction programs available on air, Syfy has made it clear—either like light, paranormal fare or go somewhere else.

The Syfy network is not the only place where hard science fiction is lacking. On the surface, this looks like a great year for sci-fi, but when you look closer, you’ll realize it’s not. A plethora of alien invasion films have been released this year, but without any real human-alien interaction the science is coated with a lot of action and generic concepts with the goal of getting geeks to tell non-geeks that the film or TV show is Not Too Geeky, making it Fun For All. When non-descript aliens, as in TNT’s Falling Skies for example, can be replaced with wizards without changing the story dramatically, then audiences feel comfortable because they are watching something that is slightly geeky. Zombies and vampires are horror, or, in the case of Twilight, fantasy. Comic book movies populate movie multiplexes, but comic book films are fantastical action fun. Hard sci-fi is not completely absent from movie screens and TV sets. Thankfully, we have Duncan Jones, who has given us Moon and Source Code, and Fringe will start its fourth season this fall on FOX. Some works of traditional science fiction can be found outside of the Syfy channel and in movie theaters, but sci-fi fans have to be patient, which is why many geeks get excited when new material seems promising, especially if it’s the return of a beloved franchise.   

Many were ecstatic when the return of Star Trek was announce, but some had reservations and felt as though they were punched in the chest after seeing the J.J. Abrams version. The original show, although pitched as Wagon Train in space, relied heavily on depicting characters using science to solve problems. Captain Kirk routinely depended on the research collected by Spock, whose ability to analyze data and reach logical conclusions helped Kirk make well-informed decisions. Using science to solve problems was integral to the show, and science didn’t take away from the action. Star Trek not only elevated the quality of traditional science fiction on television, the show also made science cool. Having characters use critical thinking and scientific reasoning was also seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation. A good example of this is the episode “Cause and Effect.” The Enterprise crew is stuck in a time loop with the last event being the ship colliding with another Starfleet vessel. The loop resets. During each loop, the crew finds evidence that things aren’t quite right. They collect data, and together they use reason to find a solution, which involves implanting a message into Data’s positronic brain. While I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’s reboot and seeing Star Trek in theaters again, I, like others, was a bit disappointed by the lack of science in the film. When done well, Star Trek is a brilliant mix of science and action; in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Khan is after a scientific project, the Genesis Device, and Kirk uses his scientific knowledge of nebulas to defeat him. In the new Star Trek, Abrams puts science on the backburner. The audience is told about red matter, that it does bad things, but no tests are performed, no research is gathered, and no discoveries are made. The film’s plot is about pursuit. Kirk and Spock must capture and stop the bad Romulan from doing something bad to Earth. Many people went to see this new version. Why? Because non-geeks learned from their geeky friends that the movie had many explosions and fights, was fun, and lacked tricorders. The new Star Trek was like a bad Peanut M&M—all chocolate with no nut in the middle. Although the film was successful, many loyal science fiction fans felt neglected.

And loyal we are. Not all lovers of science fiction are the same, but generally, once we are hooked into a series or a franchise, we remain true, even after the credits roll. Why do you think there are so many conventions for geeks? There are more criminal procedural shows on television now than sci-fi shows, but I cannot name one convention for fans of this genre. In addition to the San Diego Comic Con, there’s Dragon*Con, CONvergence, Emerald City Comic Con, Chicago Comic Con, New York Comic Con, and a lot more that attract a sci-fi loving crowd. When we have money, we go to conventions, we buy DVDs/Blu-Rays, we collect stuff, and we pay for autographs. Let me present a hypothetical situation: Mariska Hargitay, the Emmy-awarding winning star of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Gina Torres, the underused co-star of TNT’s Suits, walk into a convention. Who gets the most attention? Sorry, Ms. Hargitay, but Ms. Torres will get mobbed. Why? Because she played Zoe on Firefly, one of the best examples of fan loyalty in the sci-fi world. Off the air for almost ten years, the FOX show was cancelled before all fourteen episodes aired. Yes, fans got the movie Serenity made in 2005, but what the fans, Browncoats, really wanted was for either FOX to bring back the show or for another network to pick it up, like the Sci-Fi/Syfy channel (how awesome would it have been to have Firefly and Battlestar Galactica on the same network?). To this day, Browncoats buy the show on disc, flock to meet the stars, buy Firefly items, and still lobby for the show’s return.

This is the Power of Geeks. We’re the first in and the last out. We liked The X-Files before it was hip and stayed to the last episode. We followed Wil Wheaton to The Big Bang Theory. And some of us Browncoats even watch Castle. This is why Hollywood still tries to label whatever they can as Science Fiction in order to get the attention of geeks. We geeks are used. Some of us know this. And we get it. We understand that Hollywood is run by corporations, and corporations love money; the sci-fi label lures us in, and we lure non-geeks in by letting them know they don’t need to worry about the science content because there’s hardly any science at all. And Hollywood doesn’t care that the definition of sci-fi has loosened to the point where science doesn’t need to be the star of its own fiction. What Hollywood is focused on are filled seats and high profit margins, so whatever is invading—aliens, wizards, or blue bunny slippers—doesn’t matter. This method of thinking is short term. The majority of science fiction fans are in it for the long haul. FOX cancelling Firefly meant they cut themselves off from a huge revenue stream. If Firefly was still on the air, most of us would still be watching the show. And that’s what we’re asking for, material to call our own. For every Transformers and Cowboys and Aliens, we would like a Moon. For every Haven and Warehouse 13, we would like a Battlestar Galactica. We are willing to act as a geek-ometer as long as we have something to really Geek Out over on a consistent basis. Traditional, hard science fiction is an investment; once we’re hooked, we very rarely let go, and we willingly pay out over many years.            


  1. Absolutely! Great post! I'm not sure about the impact on book publishing be don't forget about all of the Sci-Fi-Fantasy Novels on the bookshelves. That represents a nice share of fans there who would likely follow a series or two based on the books themselves. Keep up the great writing.

  2. I know we'll have hard sci-fi in books, and video games show promise, but sometimes I want to watch a good, traditional sci-fi story, which is why I focused on TV and Films.

    Thank you for reading and for your kind comments.