Why No Prime Time SF Hits?Complications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Game, TV, and Screenwriting Blog


April 2004

May 2004

June 2004

July 2004

August 2004

September 2004

October 2004

November 2004

December 2004

January 2005

February 2005

March 2005

April 2005

May 2005

June 2005

July 2005

August 2005

September 2005

October 2005

November 2005

December 2005

January 2006

February 2006

March 2006

April 2006

May 2006

June 2006

July 2006

August 2006

September 2006

October 2006

November 2006

December 2006

January 2007

February 2007

March 2007

April 2007

May 2007

June 2007

July 2007

August 2007

September 2007

October 2007

November 2007

December 2007

January 2008

February 2008

March 2008

April 2008

May 2008

June 2008

July 2008

August 2008

September 2008

October 2008

November 2008

December 2008

January 2009

February 2009

March 2009

April 2009

May 2009

June 2009

July 2009

August 2009

September 2009

October 2009

November 2009

December 2009

January 2010

February 2010

March 2010

April 2010

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

August 2010

September 2010

October 2010

November 2010

December 2010

January 2011

February 2011

March 2011

April 2011

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

August 2011

September 2011

October 2011

November 2011

December 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

May 2012

June 2012

July 2012

August 2012

September 2012

October 2012

November 2012

December 2012

January 2013

February 2013

March 2013

April 2013

May 2013

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

October 2013

November 2013

December 2013

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

July 2014

August 2014

September 2014

October 2014

November 2014

December 2014

January 2015

February 2015

March 2015

April 2015

May 2015

June 2015

August 2015

September 2015

October 2015

November 2015

December 2015

January 2016

February 2016

March 2016

April 2016

May 2016

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

September 2016

October 2016

November 2016

December 2016

January 2017

February 2017

March 2017

May 2017

June 2017

July 2017

August 2017

September 2017

October 2017

November 2017

December 2017

January 2018

March 2018

April 2018

June 2018

July 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

January 2019

February 2019

November 2019

February 2020

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

August 2020

September 2020

October 2020

December 2020

January 2021

February 2021

March 2021

May 2021

June 2021

November 2021


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Q. In Ronald D. Moore's Banff panel, a point came up that I've been pondering--the disparity of success between cinematic and televised scifi. From cinematic high art to blockbuster entertainment, scifi is well represented. Yet no television shows are big hits, and the genre struggles to be taken seriously among television critics. I can't think of another genre with such a disparity, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on it, Alex.

A few possible causes come to mind. Perhaps higher production costs become burdensome over a series' long run. Perhaps audiences are reluctant to commit to watching scifi on a regular basis (perhaps due to social stigma) compared to seeing a single film. I am surprised by some critics' and the Emmy's inability to recognize BSG, half-way surprised.
Why are no SF shows big hits on TV, while the most successful movies in the world are mostly SF?

I can make a few guesses. The movie audience is younger and more male. They like the big-boomy. They will tolerate idiotic plots like the past three STAR WARS pictures if there are spectacular special effects. Those effects aren't as effective on a smaller screen.

On the other hand, there are lots of SF and fantasy shows on TV, but they're generally structured to be as mundane as possible. MEDIUM is a fantasy show: the heroine has visions of the future. LOST and FRINGE and HEROES are SF. Even ALIAS had an undercurrent of SF or F.

What you don't see a lot of is space opera. You don't see hit primetime series about people bopping around in spacecraft. Sure, the STAR TREK franchise has spawned four long-running spinoff shows (TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise), but they've always had relatively low ratings.

Partly that's a budget issue. It's cheap to blow stuff up, and reasonably affordable to stick a latex mask on an actor, but you can't really do something visually spectacular every week. And if you don't have spectacle, you run the risk of having a workplace drama with spandex uniforms.

I hate to say it, for I do love SF, but I think most people find the idea of bopping around on spacecraft to be fairly far from their own experience. They have a family at home; they have a family at work. The problems they deal with, the fears they face, are fairly concrete. SF operates at a level of abstraction. Sure, great SF is always grounded in our human experience. But it requires a little bit of mental work to connect what's going on in a STAR TREK episode with your daily life. So does absorbing a space opera's mythos. Most people don't want to have to work to enjoy their TV. For some reason, people find crime shows very easy to relate to, even though the average TV viewer probably will not have anyone close to them murdered. So maybe that's it.

But that's just a guess. Maybe someone will come up with a big, mainstream, hit primetime show, and we'll stop asking this question.



Another reason might be that TV Space Opera SUCKS.

While there are good space movies, and the shows you mentioned with Sci-Fi or Fantasy elements are often good, I have never seen a TV show set in space (except for Star Trek TNG) that I thought was any good. Even BSG, while it may have great characters and dramatic situations, is corny beyond belief.

I have a soft spot for Original Series Star Trek, but it was pretty nerdy. Any Sci-Fi channel show is nerdy. And I know I'm uttering complete heresy here, but Buffy has pretty high cheese factor.

Most straight-up sci-fi is for geeks. If non-geeks are to like it, they have to muscle through the Suck long enough to become attached to the characters, and that's something most people aren't willing to commit the time to these days.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 8:45 AM  

Shouldn't your question be "Why No Prime Time SF Hits in the USA?". Doctor Who's reinvention has been a major hit in the UK for several years now with the BBC building a revitalized Saturday night schedules around it...

By Blogger impwork, at 10:56 AM  


Obviously you have not seen BSG in its entirety, because to say it is corny, which brings the assumption of cheesy, is one of the most fallacious statements I have ever read.

Buffy was cheesy. I can admit that. Doctor Who's entire premise is predicated on cheese. But BSG? Fuck no.

I find it quite insulting that you say that straight-up SciFi is for geeks, because that means you clearly do not understand that there is no such thing as straight-up SciFi. That, and I love SciFi, am not a geek, and have never had to muscle through any suck on any of my favorite SciFi shows.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:19 PM  

Well, I don't know if this has any meaning, but two of the best sci-fi shows in recent history (Buffy and Battlestar Galactica) I scorned at, at first. I made fun of my wife for watching Buffy because just the name sounded so cheesy. I ended up watching a few episodes only to realize that is was a very good show.

Battlestar Galactica appealed to me only out of morbid curiosity, at first, and only months after series premiered. And the looks I got when I told people I watched the show, and that it was actually good...

I think sci-fi television would be helped by a show that didn't make your cringe at first. Two of the most recent network sci-fi shows that didn't end up catching on were Firefly and Terminator. I never watched Firefly because they billed it as a western in space. Westerns don't generally do very well and even thought it was Joss Whedon, I could watch. I ended up watching the series on DVD and loved it. But that was after the movie came out.

Terminator took a few episodes to hook me, and I almost gave up on it at one point. I found it very difficult to watch at first without comparing the movies (the first two, which I saw) and the series. Obviously the series is going to look worse.

I don't know what any of that means, but there you go.

I don't usually include this, but thought I would this time...
WV: rizes: American spelling of rises.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:20 PM  

I think most people find the idea of bopping around on spacecraft to be fairly far from their own experience.

I question the idea that people are inclined to only enjoy a show that mirrors their own experiences. I've watched a couple of soap-operas, and none of them come anywhere near reality; they are just as much fantasy as Harry Potter, though perhaps less honest about it. X-Files ran for hundreds of years (or so it felt), but I'm pretty sure most of the people I know never met an alien or wandered around in a poorly lit basement with naught but a flashlight and a crappy cellphone.

Instead, I'd argue that the less successful sci-fi television shows have more to do with writing quality and the support of the network than with fans needing something closer to home.

While it was on, BSG was the only reason I was willing to watch the sci-fi channel - the vast majority of their programming lineup has convinced me they have no respect for their audience's intelligence, assuming that fanboys will watch anything involving space, monsters or bad science.

Fox, on the other hand, has had a great track record for taking on well-written, well-executed shows like Firefly and Terminator: SCC, but balk when it comes to supporting them and drop them at the slightest hint of number lag. I swear, someone at that network has ADHD. Because of this, I won't watch most of what Fox puts out, because I don't trust them to keep anything worth watching for more than a season or two.

By Blogger Unknown, at 5:57 PM  

I'm always surprised that Farscape is never mentioned in these type of discussions. Yes, it's cheesy and it may not contain as many serious dramatic situations (there are muppets) as BSG, but it's one of the best well-done SF shows out there.

By Blogger Norlinda, at 5:58 PM  


No, I haven't seen BSG in its entirety. That was kind of my point: that while it may be enthralling if you take the time to connect with the characters, a casual viewing is actually a turn-off.

I'm not sure what you mean by saying there's not such thing as straight-up Sci-Fi. I'm going to assume you mean that every Sci-Fi show is really a western (like Firefly) or a show about a family (like Lost). But I don't agree that this makes them "not straight-up Sci-Fi." Semantics.

As for you not being a geek, it wasn't meant in a derogatory fashion. I consider myself at least some geek, and if you watch more than one Sci-Fi show, I'm going to have to go ahead and define you as one too.

With regard to your later post, I agree: I don't think failure to identify with the situation has much to do with it. The situation is almost arbitrary; the real meat of the show is the sub-genre (western, family, etc. as above). Obviously, I subscribe to your theory of bad writing.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 9:33 PM  


I only posted the first post under the name Nicholas. Someone else by the same name posted the second one.

Two separate people.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:20 AM  

A massive difference between the cited hits (MEDIUM, LOST, HEROES) and what we generally think of as sci-fi in movies is the level of universe-building. These TV shows are set in more or less the real world, and we can understand them through real-world conventions. They're not introducing several new races of aliens, multiple game-changing types of technology, deep and complicated world history, etc.

A TV series needs to pick up viewers as it goes, and if you have to explain the basics to new viewers in every episode, it gets long. Last time I visited my parents I watched a new episode of BSG, and my mom was full of questions that took a long time to explain. Whereas most real-world TV series have answers that we're used to. "She's an Active in the Dollhouse" raises many questions for a new viewer, but "He's Grace's gay best friend" or "That's her boss at the fashion magazine where she works" answers it.

In some ways, movies are best for universe-building, because you can presume that someone watching the middle of the movie has seen the beginning of the movie. In other ways, niche TV series are best for universe-building, because if you have a devoted audience, you can reveal and build on the universe elements you create. But it's very hard for a niche TV series to become a mainstream.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:03 AM  

I think it's demographics. The audience for big sci fi movies is, as Alex says, young and male. But when they're at home, these same viewers tend to choose video games over TV. That doesn't mean they WOULDN'T watch a great sci fi show, but they're not any network's core demographic.

It's sort of the flip side to Hollywood studio's claims that women don't go to movies, and that no one ever wants to watch a movie with a female lead.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 8:07 PM  

The premise that the further science fiction is from someone's experience the less likely a general audience is to watch it, holds water for me. I used to have a job reading short film scripts for Government funding (I live in Australia where we do crazy stuff like this) and without exception when a science fiction idea came up for assessment by a committee (it's our process don't judge it) there would be vehement opposition to the sci-fi script because it was thought to be 'too weird', 'way out' or only of interest to 'geeky fanboys.'

These ideas were bandied around by film professionals. People who would quite happily embrace the weirdness of a David Lynch film and find it acceptable. There are many adults out there who seem to take it as sign of their maturity that they reject Science Fiction. As though only children and the childish need to spend time in fantastic worlds. People who have to pay mortgages and send their own children to school, need to be engaged with serious dramas where buy meets girl or boy blows up terrorist splinter cell.

It's a mindset. And although I'm sure no one posting here has it, most of the people you know outside your friend group - at your work, school, church whatever - sigh when they see a spaceship or rubberhead alien - and cannot suspend their disbelief. They won't switch on your kick-ass sci-fi television show even if it's as well-written as The Wire or Deadwood.

By Blogger Mr Trivia, at 2:09 AM  

Dare I suggest the following idea: that The West Wing was one of the most popular SF shows on TV that refused - from start to finish - to admit that they were part of the genre?

No appliances on the actors' foreheads, no spacecraft zipping across the screen...but the science fiction was there. The "science" in TWW's case was political science.

By Blogger Dwight Williams, at 5:48 PM  

Post a Comment

Back to Complications Ensue main blog page.

This page is powered by Blogger.