Monday, March 8, 2004

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Bad news for sci-fi geeks?

Maureen Ryan has a long story in today's Tempo section of the Chicago Tribune arguing that the big-screen success of Lord of the Rings will not translate into more sci-fi on television:

"The Lord of the Rings" collected an awe-inspiring 11 Oscars, and its best picture win was a first for a fantasy film.

But fans of fantasy, horror and science-fiction entertainment can't count on the critical success of "Rings" -- and its box-office records -- to sweep their favorite genre from the multiplex to the TV schedule.

The truth is stranger -- and stronger -- than fantasy: Market forces have a stranglehold on even the smaller networks and cable channels that used to nurture genre TV.

"I do think it's harder for science fiction and genre shows to make it than it has been in the past. It's harder for them to find their place," says Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN....

But the biggest indignity may have been suffered by "Jake 2.0," the sci-fi flavored saga of a computer nerd-turned-superhero.

UPN recently aired a repeat episode of its reality show, "America's Next Top Model," in "Jake's" time slot. The would-be cover girls' rerun beat the mutant computer nerd's usual ratings. The upshot: "Jake" is "on hiatus" (in other words, don't look for it next year).

Read the entire thing -- it's a nice bashing of the proliferation of reality shows and Law & Order clones.

That said, two quibbles. First, as someone whose sci-fi enthusiasm is actually pretty erratic, was there ever a golden age of sci-fi on television?

Second, if there has been such a decline, could it also be explained by the improvement in big-screen special effects, which increases the incentive to produce sci-fi movies but reduces the incentive to create poor substitutes for the small screen? In other words, big-screen successes like LOTR are not complements for small-screen sci-fi, but substitutes.

posted by Dan on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM


Thank God for the Sci Fi Channel. Their origianl productions of Dune, Riverworld etc. have been great.
We can't even get decent news from the Networks, why should we think we could get good Sci Fi. The Networks cater to the lowest common denominator which appears to be getting lower all the time.

posted by: Ron in Portland on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Second, if there has been such a decline, could it also be explained by the improvement in big-screen special effects, which increases the incentive to produce sci-fi movies but reduces the incentive to create poor substitutes for the small screen? In other words, big-screen successes like LOTR are not complements for small-screen sci-fi, but substitutes.

The counter-argument would be that the development of more and better S/FX has reduced the cost making it look good, serving as incentive for small-screen sci-fi/fantasy.

posted by: Cisco on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Sad to say, even the Sci-Fi channel is becoming haven to asinine 'reality' shows with "Scare Tactics" and "Mad Mad House".

I'll grant that such shows are cheaper to produce than, say, Stargate: SG1, but who in god's name watches these things?

Jake 2.0 did pretty much suck, though, and it didn't help that Enterprise wasn't much better - arguably even worse.


posted by: Myria on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

High Definition television means that you no longer have to have poor substitutes on the small screen. A program produced in high definition looks every bit as good, if not better, than a projected movie.

posted by: David Pinto on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Big-budget effects sci-fi just works better on the big screen. Even on a big-screen TV, watching the Death Star explode just doesn't have the same effect at home.

On the other hand, Anime remains a good source for a quick Sci-Fi/Fantasy fix. I'm all pumped because the Rurouni Kenshin (Legend of Kyoto) DVD boxed set comes out next month. Now if I can just find a legit copy of the Cowboy Bebop boxed set, I'll be a happy nerd.

posted by: Independent George on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Firefly was the best sci-fi series nobody watched. Pick up the DVD set if you get the chance...and you'll be able to watch them in order, unlike the hatchet job Fox did on the show (reordered shows, showed the two hour pilot AFTER cancelling the series).

Fox would be OWNING the night of their choice with this show as an anchor...

The good news is the Firefly movie was recently greenlighted by Universal...and is set for release in 2005...

posted by: Ross Judson on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

I don't think that has been a golden age of sci-fi on television. If you think about it there has been steady presence of sci-fi/fantasy there.

Star Trek and it many permutations
Lost in Space
Six Million Dollar Man
Dr. Who
Knight Rider
Battlestar Galactica
Space 1999
Twilight Zone
Outer Limits
Land of the Giants
The Prisoner

etc, etc.

The problem is that alot of it sucked or does not appeal to the general public.

You could remake alot of the older series and make them look better and maybe cheaper but you still have to get past the fact that most people don't have a taste for it.

posted by: j Swift on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

It would help if the networks didn't schedule genre shows against each other, too.

obAside: Jake was a bit campy, but it was fun. Running it against Angel, though, was not a great idea, as it probably managed to kill both shows.

posted by: Dave R on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

If you're an SF/F fan and want to be depressed, try this: count the number of hours of original programming per week on the Sci-Fi Channel. Then subtract the number of hours of reality shows -- and let's not forget Crossing Over -- and repeats of same. It's not pretty.

The point about LOTR not translating to SF/F on TV isn't surprising -- although the article did forget to mention Charmed, such as it is -- after all, the success of Star Wars didn't lead to SF/F all over television, did it? Battlestar Galactica sure didn't last (even if they're reviving it now).

However, by focusing on network programming, the article misses the fact that the center of SF/F programming has almost always been elsewhere: syndication. (Of course, everything that was syndicated is now on the SF Channel.) Make a list of long-running (say, 3+ years) SF shows, and you'll see that the network ones are the exceptions. (And two of the exceptions are the two most recent Star Treks; they created a whole "network" just for them.)

posted by: David Nieporent on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

"Twilight Zone" and the later self-parody show "Night Gallery" indicated that stories of the fantastic and scientific can be compellingly presented with actors in street clothes upon mundane stage/sets. Similarly the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (knocked off in TV "The Invaders") needed limited special effects. LoTR-style "fantasy" like "Xena- Warrior Princess" or "Hercules" needs no more costume or Special Effect budget than a typical western.

It's not about the glitzy fireworks. It's about the story.

Bujold's "Borders of Infinity" would be cheap to shoot for a great movie -- well, right up to the moment fourteen space shuttle simultaneously dropped into the prison.

Flint's "1632" or Stirling's "Island in the Sea of Time" would make decent T.V.

Connie Willis's "Blue Moon" would be a SCREAM with a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn like cast-pair for a "Bringing Up Baby" kind of movie.

Larry Niven's "Gil the ARM" stories would, I think, make cheap cop-TV style SF. Or, if Hollywood can't pay for a big name, Lee Killough's tidy little SF police-procedural novels would work even better. If "Brother Cadeaful" can do middle-ages detective work,
why not a future cop show?

posted by: Pouncer on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Y'know, the X-files were (a) amazingly popular, (b) long running, and (c) spawned shows like CSI. That was a form of sci-fi, but it wasn't the "in space" forms that seem to dominate peoples ideas about the genre.

Science fiction has, IMHO, taken over the role that myth and fairy tales held in western culture about 150 years ago. People seem to prefer on the small screen more science then fiction, and on the big screen more fiction then science.

I'm not sure why. It might be production values, or it could be that the scifi can only stretch our imaginations so far...and that week after week of impossibility is too much for most people to stay interested.

One of LOTR's strengths is to mix concrete, real settings with mythological creatures and fanstastic actions that look as real as possible, and are reasonable to us on the otherside of the looking glass. Audiences were stunned by the glorious New Zealand backdrop. They drooled over the handcrafted garmets. The Eleves ears looked natural. Even the ringwraiths were subject to gravity, could be killed, and challenged by ordinary people. We could believe (even though Michael LaBarbera proved it was impossible) that 100 foot elephants existed. Or that the dead could rise. For 9 hours, we were willing to suspend part because the Director made it so easy.

On the small screen, our patience with the supernatural wears out. Exposure after exposure wears down our willingness to supend disbelief. Kid shows do it better because the kids take pleasure in the creativity of these other worlds. They want to believe. Adults appear to be less willing to do that. Successful scifi television shows use it as background and setting for real action and behavior. That's the strength of the orginal Star Trek vs. the nightmare that is Enterprise. You might believe that the green skinned girls found Kirk attractive. You aren't quite ready to put up with him crossing the species barrier and having kids with wierd budding aliens.

So, no I don't think there's been a golden age of sci-fi. I think we're seeing a lot more _science_ based fiction, and I think we're seeing a lot less of the fantasy science fiction like LOTR & Star Wars. Give it another 10 years - we've an entire generation of 20-somethings raised on a steadily increasing diet of Japanese anime. Anime has always embraced sci-fi, and Japanese literature weaves reality and fantasy more coherently and less conflictingly then western lit. It's entirely possible, that for sci-fi, the best is yet to come.


posted by: Carolina on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Props to whomever mentioned the Baen flagship authors of Bujold and Flint. Alas, they aren't going to see the big or small screen anytme soon. But I hear that people are thinking about Honor Harrington very seriously.


posted by: Carolina on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

From the standpoint of the quality of the writing the late 1950's early 1960's were absolutely the "Golden Age" of TV Sci-Fi. "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" have just not had any peers--check their Emmies. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison.

The only real comparison is Josh Whedon writing for "Buffy". "The Body" is absolutely one of the best hours of drama of any kind ever shown on TV.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

"The only real comparison is Josh Whedon writing for "Buffy". "The Body" is absolutely one of the best hours of drama of any kind ever shown on TV."

And the most un-genrelike and unrepresentative of the 100+ hours of Buffy in its history. "Hush" or any number of others make better examples

It is like people who cite Borges as good fantasy.

posted by: bob mcmanus on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

As a longtime trek fan, not trekkie thank you, I've been pretty bored by just about every TV series beyond the first.

Seriously. Could we please find yet another new particle that we could emit from the main array? Could we discover yet another new particle that nobody else, including all those scientists, have ever found. And in less than 20 minutes to boot! Could we have our expensive starship totally trashed by some knobble-headed green thing riding the space equivalent of a jet-ski?


What I'd like to see the Trek fruitcakes do is a series based off of a descendent of Harcourt Fenton Mudd. Some shifty unruly character, NOT with a heart of gold a la Quark please, who is forever down on his luck and always looking to make a fast buck.

It would be a refreshing change if nothing else.

posted by: ed on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the story, stupid.”. One would be hard pressed to find a more widely loved story in Anglo-American literature of the 20th century than LOTR. LOTR single-handedly created the fantasy genre section in bookstores.

I think, however, that it’s more than that. It’s the creation of a consistent world that makes the story believable as history, not just as allegory or symbolic truth. JRR Tolkein created not only a story, but a consistent and believable back-story, or history, if you will, of incredible depth and richness. Most science fiction seems too heavy handed, jarring ones “suspension of disbelief” with an attitudes and agendas that bring the real world front and center. Tolkein doesn’t do this. In short, LOTR was a fantastic reality show. Jackson’s great achievement, IMHO, is not messing that up.

posted by: TexasToast on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

"was there ever a golden age of sci-fi on television"

It must have been the late '70s and early '80s: Battlestar Galactica & Buck Rogers; Knight Rider and its knock-offs, Airwolf and Street Hawk; Greatest American Hero, the Powers of Matthew Starr, and V; the Twilight Zone revival. It was gold. Gold!

Then along came ST:TNG and killed it, and there have been zero SF/fantasy TV shows ever since.

The success of LOTR clearly shows that we need more New Zealand-based sword-and-sorcery shows. And that Sam Raimi had a big hit with Spider-Man. Let's have Sam Raimi produce a medieval superhero show, filmed in New Zealand.

With lesbians.

posted by: Grumpy on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Let's have Sam Raimi produce a medieval superhero show, filmed in New Zealand. With lesbians.

Heh. I miss Xena.

posted by: Independent George on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Zathras think golden age of sci-fi ended when Joe Stracynski decided to do something else. Before, had great story, but small budget, no network support. Had very sad life, also very sad death, but at least there was symmetry.

posted by: Zathras on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Firstly, a reduction in the cost of producing special effects only affects the supply side of the equation. In talking about substitutes and complements, you are referring to the demand side. The demand and supply equations do not interact.

Secondly, the reduction in cost will fall uniformly across the production of both movies AND television. Why should this cost-reduction increase movie production at the expense of tv production?

posted by: Kevin King on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Hm. As I recall, there were a couple of years when X-Files was on the air and hadn't yet jumped the shank; Buffy was on; DS9 and B5 were on. If that ain't a golden age, what would it take to qualify?

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Tolkein was sui generis. Perhaps I might be taken as typical of at least some of the LotR fan base: I've read all of Tolkein's books many times over, and seen the films many times.

BUT... I can't abide any other fantasy author. (Well, yes, Borges and Marquez and Lem and so forth, but that's not what "fantasy" is taken to mean). I can sit through a fantasy film, once, if there's nothing good showing. Sci-Fi (which LotR isn't) is OK sometimes.

So you can see how the LotR success wouldn't translate, in that same way that Shakespeare's success doesn't translate into general enthusiasm for stories of Renaissance Italy or whatever.

posted by: voice of the democracies on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

I'd say there have been at least a few good, or even great, fantasy and/or science fiction shows on television at any given time for most of the last decade. Currently, I'd put "Angel", "Andromeda", and "Stargate SG-1" in that category.

Anyway, to flesh out Jacob Levy's suggestion a bit: the "Golden Age of TV science fiction" was 1997. The first seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Stargate SG-1" were that year, and "Babylon 5", "Deep Space 9", "Xena", "Hercules", and "The X-Files" were all pretty much at their peak.

posted by: Dan on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

1997? You're kidding! It's the early '80s all the way. And I even forgot the princes of the genre: Manimal and Automan. And I vaguely recall a show about a hero who could transform into cars, but only Mustangs, Impalas, and Jaguars: Automanimal.

posted by: Grumpy on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]


No offense to anyone but I'd suggest that special effects has nothing to do with sci-fi whatsoever. Some of the very best sci-fi had either none or extremely ugly special effects. What they did have was storyline, plot, characters and acting.


posted by: ed on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

To Carolina: ADV will be coproducing a 22 x 50 min Honor Harrington live action series and a 26 x 25 min Mutineer's Moon animated series. Ask and ye shall receive.

Right now, Japan's where it's at for SF on television. While the American and Canadian product has suffered a decline in quality since the hatchet job done to Crusade, there's been a stream of high-quality titles on air in Japan in the same time period: Mahoromatic; Cowboy Bebop; Crest of the Stars and its sequels; Now and Then, Here and There; and RahXephon are just some of the series I can wholeheartedly recommend.

The problem isn't that Japan has a lock on quality writing—it's just that American networks seem to like pushing crap. Rather than produce more episodes of Crusade with creative control returned to JMS (compare "Racing the Night" with "War Zone"), we get Cube 4 and Garter Snake Aleph-Null. The staff of Jake 2.0 seem to have gone out of their way to ensure that no detail would correspond with reality—I particularly enjoyed the blatant violations of USSID 18 and the big-budget interior decor, the latter especially considering that in some areas of the US government a 1GHz P4 is hot stuff.

Andromeda had an interesting premise, but it was shaky the first season and taken over by Hercules in the second. As the series progresses, the audience discovers that the Systems Commonwealth is better off dead. While most series take some time to hit their peak, Earth: Final Conflict did that with "Sandoval's Run" in season 1, and went downhill from there. In TOS, Scotty believes that "The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank," but in Enterprise, Captain Archer is an überpacifist who will hurt no one—even those actively attempting to murder his crew members. Article 99, anybody?

Given a good writing staff (e.g., Wheddon, JMS, GRRM, David) and freedom from micromanging suits (one of the points in that article), small screen SF ought to sell just fine. It's just that these conditions haven't been met lately by certain large Los Angeles and Toronto media companies...

posted by: Brad Ackerman on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Is it weird for me to comment on the discussion of my own article? Sorry if it is, but if you can forgive me, here goes.

Regarding whether there was ever really a golden age, I asked all the producers I spoke to "Is it harder now to get genre-flavored shows on the air, or has it always been hard?"

They all said, it's always been really hard. And now, thanks to the network execs who all want the next CSI or Bachelorette, it's even harder.

I wish I'd made one other point in the piece: What's happening to TV is what's already happened in movies. Good writing and complexity are going out the window in a pell-mell race to go after the younger demographic. Networks used to be okay pulling in the 18-49 or 35-49 demo. Now they all want 18-34, and they think the same 3 reality/cop/legal formulas will draw those viewers.

I wrote the article because I was so saddened by the fact that in May, Joss Whedon won't have a show on TV. To me, that's the most screwed up indicator we have that quality is by no means what the networks are looking for. Heck, it might be a detriment to the career of Whedon -- and Greenwalt, JMS, Moore, etc -- that they're known as the creators of dense, complex, intelligent, surprising shows.


posted by: Maureen Ryan on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

Ron: Thank God for the Sci Fi Channel. Their origianl productions of Dune, Riverworld etc. have been great.

Not nearly enough to make up for their cancellation of Farscape, in my mind. And they should have stepped in to pick up Firefly, but that was mostly Fox's bad, of course. At least we'll get a movie out of it.

posted by: fling93 on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

"There is currently a formula for success in the entertainment medium, that is -- beat it to death if it succeeds." --Ernie Kovacs

A "Golden Age?" Hasn't happened, probably won't. Twilight Zone, which I enjoyed, was successful with network execs because of the rather pompous moralizations of Rod Serling, not because it was genre. The original Star Trek was deemed an expensive failure, and the network did its best to kill it off - only the rabidity of its fans kept it on.

Every once in a while there's something I enjoy, like [ducking] Dark Angel, or even [running for life] Max Headroom. But every time something has any measure of success... While the execs didn't care for Trek, that didn't stop them from trying to foist crap like Space 1999 on us.

posted by: John Anderson on 03.08.04 at 10:20 AM [permalink]

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