Friday, July 1, 2011

Thinking: Goodbye, Space Opera?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”
-          Lord Darlington (“Lady Windermere’s Fan”, by Oscar Wilde)

One of the great things about this time of year for any fan of lazing on the sofa and watching the telly is the great swathe of gossip, fear, triumph and disappointment that comes with the US TV networks deciding which shows to cancel, renew and launch. Sure, many fall mid-season, but most victims linger into the spring and the slow death of being shunted about the schedules until the last of the audience give up writing petitions and let them die. Others hang over the edge a bit before bounding free into renewal, and the internet swarms with pictures and sneak reviews of commissioned pilots on which viewers can hang their hopes of a new show with which to go through the whole cycle again next year. 

And this year we have the usual bunch of Lost-alikes, a bit of modern (and not so modern) fantasy, Steven Spielberg’s return to using Dinosaurs, and a couple more attempts to repeat the success of Heroes series one with-out the nasty aftertaste of the rest of its run. But what’s missing in all this geeky programming is anything “out in space”. And I think that’s a curious omission, so I did a bit of research – well, spent half-an-hour on Wikipedia – and confirmed my suspicion that this is the first time in over twenty years you can’t get a “Space Ships in Space” fix on the telly. Here’s a picture to prove it: 

Space Opera TV Shows in Production by Original Broadcast Year (click for bigness)

Now, even discounting the hugely dominant Star Trek franchise, that’s a lot of shows with a lot of overlap. There was a lot of people spending a lot of money to make people look like they’re flying around in space and tell stories about it and suddenly there isn’t anymore. There wasn’t even a non-picked-up pilot that I’m aware of. So where did they go, and why? 

The first answer that comes to mind is simply that no-one watches them. And I think that there may be some truth to that; Battlestar Galactica always struggled with ratings but survived at least in part to being very highly reviewed and lending prestige to a network desperately lacking it. In fact very few of these shows where ever considered “safe”, as far back as Babylon 5 – but that was 20 years ago (god I feel old) so if Space Opera has always been a little niche it never stopped people trying to make it before. Sure, Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty big but none of the rest were what you’d call televisual juggernauts, but they clearly did well enough to keep on the screen (mostly) for a decent run and many cancelled shows even got spins off and movies for the faithful. 

So the next answer is sort of related – money. It is cheaper, says the common wisdom, to make five editions of Jersey Shore or a new series of The X Factor, which get more viewers, which mean more advertising revenue and therefore the networks make more money off the show. Which is also true, but this argument applies to all genre shows and is, I think, a reason that they are receding off mainstream networks in the US generally, or become more based in “this world” but HBO hasn’t been shy in creating “other worlds” the last few years not just in the obvious (Game of Thrones) but in its strand of historical dramas (The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire) as well. And the other premium cable networks are keen to emulate that model with shows like Camelot and Spartacus and the Torchwood buy-out which may not be as high-class but still have the costs associated with imaging these worlds. 

I think the point with both the above examples is that whilst they are both factors in Space Opera vanishing from the screens I think that as factors go they’ve been ever present, and something that the genre has always struggled with. They kill shows for sure, but I’m not sure they stop people trying to make them in the first place. But I think more fundamentally, it has just finally gone out of fashion. This is different from ratings, by the way, I think there is almost certainly still an audience, but I think that creatively, from writers and commissioners and network executives, there is a sense that the possibilities of flying around in space have been played out over the last twenty or so years it is time to move on. 

I blame Star Trek, of course. 

By which I mean that Trek has been such a dominant force in creating the model of a Space Opera show that the whole genre has struggled to be free of it. It certainly didn’t create TV space opera but it sure as hell shaped it, and The Next Generation’s launch is the show that brings it back to the screen after the post-Star Wars boom shows limped off in the early 80s. For a while it seemed to define the whole genre – shows like Babylon 5, Farscape and Firefly were at pains to be not-Trek, whilst each lifting aspects from it, and even the Trek franchise itself struggled with its own legacy, both successfully in later Deep Space Nine and much less so with the sad and confused Enterprise

It’s also interesting that after the death of Enterprise there are no new shows put out there, Stargate: Universe being a noble-if-doomed attempt to take the venerable Stargate franchise in a new, credibly dark’n’murky direction. It makes me wonder if Trek, the clear market leader in terms of consciousness (if not quality) is somehow dictating the rhythms of the whole genre, and having it on the screens makes it easier to move other projects forward. I suspect so. 

So what next for Space-Ships on your telly? Well not included on the list, and buried on the kids channels of your TV remote is Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is all CG animated and pretty much as space opera-ey as it gets, not to mention featuring better plots and acting than much of the Star Wars prequels. So I guess you can get your fix of hot starship-on-starship action from there, but apart from that I suspect it will be a while before someone dips a toe back in the waters.

And that’s a shame, frankly, because I like Space Opera as a literary genre, and I think TV is a great medium for it’s mix of adventure, accessibility and story-telling freedom. And for now, as it’s flown off into the sunset, I shall miss it.