Space Ramblings

What’s Killing Science Fiction TV?

And don’t say the networks. That’s too obvious. Who is really to blame for a TV landscape where Science Fiction hardly exists?

1. Pretentious Showrunners

a. Arcs – I warned about this back in the DS9/B5 days and none of the fanboys would listen. And here we are. Science Fiction dramas come with convoluted arcs built in and audiences tune out. The more convoluted the arc, the more it panders to hard cores and casual viewers have trouble getting into the show. That limits the potential audience.

b. Religion – Remember when Science Fiction shows were about doing things. Now they’re about faith and mysticism. Even the latest Stargate is about searching for the divine code of the universe. Lost ended in the afterlife. Fringe’s finale raised up an interdimensional crucifix. The Battlestar Galactica reboot, like I even need to spell that one out. The common denom is that showrunners want to say something about religion, but suck at it. The shows turn into mumbo jumbo. Viewers tune out. (I warned about this in the DS9/B5 days too.)

c. Unlikable Characters – People invest in characters. The characters can’t be too complicated. We want to know who they are a minute after we meet them. And they can’t be crazy or awful people. Not even if that’s what you think sophisticated writing means.

2. Squishy Fandom

a. Fandom today is defined less by the majority of fans, and more by a minority who are lot squishier. Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman worshipers are the ones in a position to define fandom. But they’re a minority. And the shows that the Etsy and Steampunk crowd push don’t connect well with viewers. The same thing is happening with written Science Fiction.

3. Yes, Networks

a. Scripted drama is expensive. Scripted drama with tons of effects is even more expensive. The SyFy channel decided it doesn’t really want to be in the science fiction business anymore. Most networks made that decision earlier. Some shows still get ordered, but not many. And they’re not given support. Classical space based SF is dismissed as too male oriented. And the alternatives are more copies of X-Files, instead of a more innovative concept like Sliders. Concepts which are light on effects, less expensive to make and can connect to audiences.

b. Science Fiction doesn’t fit naturally into the TV format which is aimed at the largest possible audience. TV is still built on the family model. It’s less oriented to kids now, but it still tries to hook male and female audiences equally. A movie can pander to one gender or the other, but that’s riskier with a TV show. Networks still expect audiences to carry over from one show to the next. A show that pulls in an audience that doesn’t carry over to the rest of the schedule or doesn’t pick up the audience from earlier shows is a problem. A series whose viewers just tune into that show and alienate any portion of the network audience is a problem. Science fiction fits more naturally into the theater which bills itself as giving you an amazing experience, but most TV isn’t into amazing experiences. It’s comfort food. And Science Fiction doesn’t really go as comfort food.

c. Science Fiction audiences are often more tech savvy which means they’re more likely to DVR or Hulu or just pirate the show. Networks still haven’t adapted to measuring raw numbers, rather than viewership ratings. Until that happens programming aimed at less tech savvy audiences will score better.

d. Coming up with another family drama or sitcom isn’t that hard. Coming up with a successful one is, but not as hard as coming up with a concept for a Science Fiction series. Most dramas are not that conceptually complicated. Even a dumb Science Fiction show is. And that’s the stage where most shows break down. Where the network just can’t see this pitch working. Where the pilot doesn’t hold up. Complexity is difficult.

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  • Heavy Armor May 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Actually, the problem bigger than all of that is that what passes for science fiction and fantasy is written with the same structure as a typical American comic book issue.

    Episodic arcs have been around since the penny theatre days (Kirk Alyn’s Superman series, for example). Multi-episode character arcs and stories as well (The Six Million Dollar Man’s Jamie Sommers arc, Glen Larson’s BSG and Knight Rider). The difference is that these were all self-contained and self-containable; you did not have to see all of the previous material to get up to speed and enjoy it.

    Smallville is a prime example of the opposite. In their attempts to one-up the drama and provide “shocking” moments (similar to what’s found in the comics), the tapestry of the mythos is unraveled. I can’t really think of one thing that Clark/Superman has done that was not “inspired” by someone else doing it before him (and “better than him” on top of that). That cheapened the story in the end and the payoff of Clark becoming “Superman” essentially becomes meaningless. The writers treated Superman as a collection of things that he does, instead of as his own character. But when you have a generation of writers who write stories devoid of content, this is the result.

  • O_Deus May 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Smallville has never played coy about being a rip off. This is a series that built entire episodes around rip offs of popular movies.

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