Televised science fiction has been enjoying something of a resurgence these last few years, with some people wondering if we’re entering into a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of scifi.
People my age, who were born in the 1970s and 1980s, once thought that the latter half of the 1980s and the entirety of the 1990s was that Golden Age, because of the number of science fiction shows on free-to-air TV at the time. Shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs, Quantum Leap, The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond, Farscape, Babylon 5 and it’s spin-off Crusade, Stargate SG-1, Earth: Final Conflict, Sliders, SeaQuest DSV, and more.
Honestly, it was pretty amazing. Even in Australia, where we still don’t get a lot of scifi content on free-to-air and have to wait for those shows to arrive on DVD (or at that time, video cassette), we could still catch two or three shows a week – The X-Files, Farscape, SeaQuest DSV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Space: Above and Beyond. All while waiting for the latest Star Trek or Babylon 5 episode to arrive on video.
With that amount of content, you’d expect some duds, but most of the science fiction and, what eventually came to be known as ‘genre shows’ (thanks to Buffy) were pretty good.
Then it all stopped. We had the odd ‘sputter’ with the amazing Battlestar Galactica reboot, and we had Charmed, Angel, V, and the Stargate spin-offs for a while, but suddenly genre series seemed to all but disappear from our screens. Until recently.
Now, over the last few years, all sorts of incredible, not easily definable television shows have captivated science fiction and fantasy fans, as well as mainstream audiences alike – The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Vikings, the revamped Doctor Who, Westworld, Ash vs The Evil Dead, Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, The Strain, Legion, Once Upon A Time, Grimm, Agents of SHIELD, The Exorcist, The Expanse, Dark Matter, Killjoys and soon, the brand new Star Trek: Discovery.
There are so many ‘genre’ shows airing right now that it’s actually difficult to keep track of them! But, how many are traditional science fiction? Scifi set in space, on a starship, zooming about all over the place?
Very few, actually.
I don’t think anyone really knows why. At one point it might have been an issue of cost, because science fiction shows have never been cheap, but with Game of Thrones costing a whopping six million dollars per episode, that’s probably not a consideration any more.
It might be because, as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair from Babylon 5 would say, “Nothing is the same anymore.” We’re not watching television in the same ways as we used to. We’re streaming shows and we’re watching them on multiple platforms. Also, we’re getting, on average, half as many episodes per season as we once used to.
People are time poor in the 21st Century, and on top of that the old studio system doesn’t hold as much sway as it once did. Plus, many of us are paying for our content and because of that we’re expecting something special. We want ‘event’ television, but event television that tells an intimate tale.
Science fiction is definitely event television, but it hasn’t always done the intimate bit very well.
Thankfully, that is changing and we’re starting to see more traditional scifi again.
Right now, there are three standard bearers for science fiction television.
The Expanse, Killjoys, and Dark Matter.
All three take place on a larger canvas, telling bigger stories, but focus episode to episode on the lives of a few characters, taking us deep into their worlds.
With The Expanse, we’re following a crew of four, learning about them and their relationships episode to episode.
With Killjoys, we’re following a crew of three people, unravelling the mystery of their lives.
With Dark Matter we’re following what was a crew of six (but that fluctuated in Season 2) as they try to remember who they are – and on discovering that, try to fight against who they were and become better people.
In just two seasons, for each of these shows, we have learned more about their main characters than we did most of the characters on any of the old Star Trek shows.
These new series are showing the way for modern science fiction, and it’s exciting.
I haven’t seen The Expanse yet, because it hasn’t aired on television or been made available to us on DVD or BluRay, for reasons that are just stupid, but I am a fan of the books and follow all of the news on the show and it looks amazing.
Killjoys and Dark Matter, however, I can comment on, and both are outstanding.
Killjoys took me four episodes to get into, but by episode five of Season One I was hooked and I’ve been in love with the show ever since. What hooked me? The characters. Dutch, Johnny and D’avin.
Dark Matter grabbed me straight away and has kept me wanting more season to season. What grabbed me? In particular Two (Portia), Three (Marcus), Five (Emily), Six (Kal) and the Android.
All of the other stuff in both shows is just icing on the cake.
As well as the intimate story lines mentioned above, those shows have something else in common – they have strong female leads, they don’t shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, and they show us a multicultural future where light and dark dance around the edges of what are very ‘grey’ realities. I love Star Trek‘s utopia like future, but I get that today’s audiences want some sort of discourse on just how screwed up we all are. They want to it see it reflected and mirrored on television, and they want to see our heroes fighting, and at times submitting, to that.
Rather than break these shows down in any detail, I encourage you to watch them if you haven’t – and to continue to support them if you already enjoy them.
As someone who hopes to see an old favourite, Space: 1999, rebooted, there are lessons that can be learned from these new shows about how to structure a series and most especially about what a modern audience wants. Intimacy. Inclusion. An exploration of modern issues.
Space: 1999 was already doing some of that back in the 1970s, with a very multicultural crew on Moonbase Alpha, and any reboot of it would no doubt be able to tackle that and other things that are important to us now, and in very creative and intimate ways. I can imagine a transgender crew member, and with a character like Maya an episode or two or five focused on inclusion and the occasional bigotry that can come with not understanding something or someone.
More and more, as I dissect both of these more traditional science fiction shows and compare them with other genre offerings, I see a place for Space: 1999 in modern television (obviously with a few changes), and get more and more excited about the possibility.
Moonbase Alpha was a microcosm of Earth, and it’s philosophical ‘bent’ was all about us (in the 1970s) asking “who am I?” “Why am I here?” Where am I going?” Things many of these genre series are debating right now in their own unique and dramatic ways.
I hope that this renaissance of science fiction that we are enjoying right now continues for some time, and I hope that a new Space: 1999 becomes a part of that.
I first wanted the show to get a reboot in the 80s. Then again in the early 2000s. But now, looking at the world as it is, and looking at what genre television has become, I feel NOW is the time. It would have been too soon a couple of decades ago.
As far as I know, ITV still own the rights to the television series.
Hopefully they realise the potential of Space: 1999, and give it the new life it deserves.