It’s a question many people have been pondering for quite a few years. Gone are the hey-days of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the subsequent Nineties sci-fi boom. The arrival of multiple Star Trek spinoffs, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Stargate SG-1 and a plethora of dozens of other sci-fi shows seemed to herald the dawn of a new Golden Age of a more pure science-fiction.
Yet today, we’re left with a fraction of the science-fiction which used to grace our television screens. Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Atlantis have both just finished, and other shows such as Firefly or Threshold were shot down before they really got going.
So why have these shows fallen into decline? Twenty years ago, Star Trek was a guaranteed ratings winner, drawing in millions of viewers and a massive market share. As the latest television incarnation of the franchise – Star Trek: Enterprise – came to an end, it was left with a fraction of the viewing numbers its predecessors had enjoyed. Enterprise‘s decline has been written about in more than enough detail, and its death can be attributed to any number of factors: lack of advertisement, lacklustre plots or perhaps simply too many episodes of the same franchise without a break.
Yet Enterprise is reflective of a much wider problem for the genre. The few genre shows which have succeeded in recent years have attempted to blend their traditional sci-fi elements with elements of other genres. Fringe, for instance, adopts the X-Files style crime-investigation angle – consequently tapping into an audience made popular by endless CSI shows and a saturated market of crime detective dramas. It may be science-fiction, but only to an extent.
In short, shows have either been forced to dilute their science-fiction aspects or create something new entirely, a la Lost. Just what Lost is, well, that’s anyone’s guess. The truth is, we’ve been left with no real science fiction that’s really hitting massive audiences in the United States.
Battlestar Galactica – a show which I feel will become the definitive science-fiction show of the decade – has enjoyed massive and widespread critical acclaim, and it’s well deserved. However, even its most-watched episodes enjoyed a tiny percentage of the viewership enjoyed by the likes of American Idol, or similar reality shows which appear to be gripping audiences in the United States.
So why have people become more interested in how a celebrity can dance, or by an Average Joe covering a song, than in humanity’s struggle against the Cylons, or an intrepid team of explorers galavanting across the galaxy. Well, again, it’s probably an amalgamation of factors.
One could argue that the change in American society since 9/11 has been instrumental. Suddenly, an atmosphere of suspicion, fear and sudden awareness of terrorism spread across the world. And if you look at Battlestar for instance, much of that is reflected in the show’s content: suicide bombings, annihilation and trust and negotiation with an popularly feared enemy. The parallels are there. It’s symbolic of how contemporary events infiltrate and shape the television landscape. Thus, when coupled with the current economic recession, the subsequent rise in popularity of the escapism-style entertainment we see in reality television is suddenly quite easily explained.
And so gone are the days of the 1960s; days where Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future was able to thrive. One could argue, as George Takei did in his recent interview with us, that Star Trek originally aired in the middle of the Cold War, and thus it would have been easy for his vision to have been drowned out by fear, and the overarching shadow of the divide between East and West. Yet, Star Trek became a global phenomenon – albeit slowly – and adopted a hopeful vision that so many found inspiring.
So why wouldn’t a similar science fiction show thrive today? True, Star Trek is about to return in explosive fashion. Yet, while Star Trek is about to be revived, it is likely for reasons other than a hopeful outlook for a bleak society. It is an action blockbuster – an attempt to tell an exciting story and raise a whopping great load of cash. It is not an attempt to explore the human condition and its wonderful diversity, as Roddenberry had attempted forty years ago. So, it is difficult to see where such a show is coming from. Nonetheless, does the market exist for a similar show to take place?
While the market may in fact be there, tt seems unlikely. Few networks seem willing to back a science fiction show in general. Take Dollhouse for instance, where FOX forced Joss Whedon to splice apart his pilot script and spread it across the first six episodes – destroying the original intention of the writers. Why? Because the networks want to market the shows in their own way. Their aim is simple: to make money and out-muscle their rivals. Writers could pitch pure science-fiction all day, and networks would shoot them down repeatedly or dramatically edit them, because they do not feel there is a market for them. Yet often these executives are little more than number-crunchers, with little understanding of television relative to the actual viewer in their home. But why should they back a new sci-fi show, when shows like American Idol are infinitely cheaper to produce, and pull in far more viewers? It certainly makes business sense to knock off a few more of these shows, leaving science-fiction to the realm of the past and no longer needed.
Of course, networks realise that not everyone will bite on the reality cookie, and so continue to fund genre shows. But the result is quite different than it would have been forty years ago. These new genres shows must be fast-paced; full of scenes which look good in the trailers, and jammed full of sexy actors to hit the coveted young adult demographics. Where other shows – reality, crime, detective, family drama – may be easier to start up since there is a standard formula in which one can cast some attractive characters and toss in a few explosions, no such formula exists for science-fiction.
Perhaps sci-fi viewers are more critical; often loathing the wooden acting and tired plots that other shows seem to have no problem with. Perhaps the genre simply lends itself to a longer settling period – where the show finds its pace, its niche and what its viewers want. Either way, these are problems which do not serve the genre well in 21st Century. If you haven’t found your audience in thirteen episodes, and the critics don’t like you, you’re as good as dead on network television. As a result, networks either don’t take on new sci-fi shows, or if they do, they don’t have much confidence in them to begin with (see Firefly on FOX).
Does this mean that there’s no possibility that science fiction show could take off on network television? Something pure and traditional, involving space travel. Well, as Doctor Who has shown in the UK, there appears to be a market remaining. The difference in the UK is that the BBC has thrown a lot of money at the show, and hired a very talented writing team who know what their audience wants. In short, they’ve nurtured the show in a way which wouldn’t likely happen in the United States.
The revival of Star Trek will be an interesting test of the genre. If JJ Abrams can resurrect the stagnant genre, then it’s highly probable that the networks will try to cash in. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one big-budget, big-name science fiction television show hit network television in the next two to three years, if Star Trek turns out to be a financial success. If it flops, well, the genre will come back eventually, but now certainly isn’t its time.
The later half of the Noughties have been a tough time of the genre. It’s an era of networks with no confidence in the concepts; where reality TV is experiencing ratings domination; where writers – especially those who truly understand what viewers want (see Ronald D. Moore or Joss Whedon) cannot get their true visions onto the screen without massive network interference. Whether this will change in the future: most probably. Just how long that will take, or how we will get there, is a very different question, and one which we can’t answer just yet.