In 2009, James Cameron’s science fiction epic, Avatar, was released into movie theaters everywhere. A whirlwind force of unparalleled 3D accomplishment, visual splendor, art direction, and sheer spectacle, the movie boasts a score of 83 (out of 100) on the review amalgamation site Metacritic.com. That was not Avatar’s only success. The movie raked in an absolutely ridiculous amount of money–once it was all said and done, Avatar earned $2,782,275,172 worldwide. According to the International Monetary Fund, this is essentially the entire GDP of the South American country of Guyana from 2012. If you prefer a more concrete analogy, Avatar grossed 114,970 Toyota Prius hybrid cars.
In 2001, Microsoft Studios and Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved, a sci-fi first person shooter, for the brand new Xbox. Halo was unanimously received as the best console FPS to date; its aggregate score on Gamerankings.com is an impressive 95.54%. For a console which only sold 25 million units, Halo itself sold 6.43 million discs. Halo 2, released in 2004, sold even better at 8.49 million and was also critically praised. The narrative repeated itself with Halo 3 in 2007 and Halo 4 in 2012; these titles sold 11.78 and 8.35 million, respectively. The Halo franchise is arguably the most important new franchise in video games since the turn of the millennium, and the franchise also includes best-selling spinoffs Halo: Reach, Halo 3: ODST, Halo Wars, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and PC releases for Halo 1 and 2.
In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games, published by Scholastic, hit the shelves. The book, a science-fiction story of a post-apocalyptic society, was positively received by many, including commercially successful authors such as Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. It hit the New York Times Best Seller list in November and has spent time there for 148 weeks, or roughly the amount of time it takes to receive a package via the US Postal Service. The following books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were released the following two years and have met similar success.
In 2011, Terra Nova, Fox Network’s greatly hyped and highly anticipated sci-fi time-travel epic, premiered. It didn’t even last until 2012. After its initial 13 episode season, declining viewership, expensive production costs, and mounting impatience from top management prompted Fox to cancel the show.
One of these things is not like the others.
There is a curious thing going on in media nowadays. As I have shown, science fiction is a hugely profitable enterprise in movies, games, and books. Yet, this does not seem to be the case for television. Sure, there have been recent television successes in the sci-fi genre (Lost, Fringe, and Doctor Who), and there have been failures in the movie/game/book sections of sci-fi too (Will Smith’s After Earth comes to mind). There are two things to consider, though. First is that sci-fi is routinely a moneymaker for the other media–in addition to Avatar, there were the Star Trek reboots, District 9, Star Wars; in addition to Halo, there was Gears of War, Mass Effect, Borderlands. The same cannot be said for television–the biggest shows are House, CSI, How I Met Your Mother, and the like.
The second thing is that there is a decent list of recent sci-fi shows that were flops. Here are some other shows, in addition to Terra Nova, which didn’t last very long themselves:
Alphas-19 episodes, 2010
Bionic Woman-8 episodes, 2007
Caprica-24 episodes, 2011-2012
Dollhouse-27 episodes, 2009-2010
Firefly-14 episodes, 2002
Flash Forward-22 episodes, 2009-2010
Stargate Universe–44 episodes, 2009-2011
V-22 episodes, 2009-2011
Even the most successful of this list, Stargate Universe, was a huge disappointment. It lasted for two seasons as opposed to 5 for Stargate Atlantis and 10 for Stargate SG-1; its total was less than half of Atlantis (100) and about a fifth of that of SG-1 (214).
The rift between television and other media regarding sci-fi is fascinating. I do think there are reasons for this, though. These will be explained in part 2.