On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The ship was, for its time, technologically brilliant. It served as a vessel for the 238,900 mile trip to Earth’s only natural satellite and functioned properly for the whole 8 days of the mission. There were no major issues; Apollo 11 brought back with it moon rocks and dust, along with the sheer wonder of being an object that made the longest round-trip in history.
Yet, none of this matters if the human element is not there. If Kennedy does not make the bold claim that the moon landing will occur within the decade. If Armstrong does not proclaim “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” If the pure amazement of transcending the only planet the human race has ever known is not experienced by the world. If the astronauts don’t return home and fill out the most amusing paperwork that has ever existed. Regardless of the technological breakthroughs, wonder, and achievement, the moon landing does not matter save for what it means to us both individually and as a human race.
In Part 1, I discussed the curious and often significant demarcation between television and other forms of media in regards to the success of science fiction. To recap: science fiction releases are some of the most profitable and hyped in film, video games, and books; meanwhile, science fiction TV shows struggle to succeed, and even the hyped ones rarely achieve commercial success. But why? Why is it like this?
Movies are roughly two hours long. The most expensive movies in the world have a built-in limit on the final product; furthermore, movie releases are a singular event. A film needs only to enthrall the audience once for a short time, and it need not actually be good to be successful. Moviegoers enjoy spectacle. How else do you explain the performance of the Transformers films compared to their Metacritic scores? Meanwhile, a science fiction novel costs no more to write than any other type of novel, and again is a singular event. A video game is also one entity. Furthermore, for video games, it is important to have gameplay that is fun and interesting. Story is a secondary consideration for many video games (it often shows), but shooting lasers at people is fun, so science fiction is an easy genre to utilize.
A television show is made up of a legion of entities. Its success depends on retaining viewership across a wide number of episodes. If a person sits down and watches Star Explosion 5: Furtive Reconnaissance Disaster at the cinema and doesn’t like it, they can go home and never think of it again (though Star Explosion 5 is my favorite). If that person watches CSI: Mars Colony and doesn’t like it, that’s a problem for the show, as it must retain viewership to succeed. Furthermore, the CGI and effects for Mars Colony and other sci-fi shows make them very expensive. Sci-fi shows must gather a larger audience compared to other shows to stay profitable.
The best science fiction stories are not those with the most and biggest explosions, or the craziest time traveling, or the weirdest aliens, though all of these things are good to include. The best stories are ones about people. Characters drive fiction. Star Wars has become a cultural icon because its characters are strong and memorable: Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo. Star Trek has done a similar thing through Captain Kirk and Spock; Stargate through Jack O’Neill, Fringe through Walter–the list goes on.
In order to create a great show, you need to get people to care about the characters. A movie, book, or videogame can survive on a premise, on technology, on a gimmick, even. A television show can’t do that. Science fiction is great because it allows the creator to put characters into situations that we will never be in and under fascinating stresses that highlight humanity;s struggles in a truly unique light. It takes truly great vision and execution to do so. However, TV shows must also be accessible, or else you don’t retain viewership.
In many ways, TV sci-fi must be perfect in a way that other media do not need to be. A successful sci-fi show emphasizes character, emphasizes lore, emphasizes plot, is marketed well, consistent, able to change, different, accessible, full of wonder, full of normality, culturally relevant, culturally transcendent, fun, intellectual, and lucky. Other science fiction media needs far less of those qualities to succeed.
I do think part of this odd lack of science fiction on television is a result of the radically changing industry. TV is changing faster than movies, books, or video games. Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and others have fundamentally altered our consumption of TV, and the whole medium is going through a violent upheaval. Former subscribers are leaving cable in droves; the only thing I watch on cable, KC Royals games, I can get–you guessed it–on the internet, if I ever need to. Science fiction shows have met resounding success in the past, with Stargate SG-1, Smallville, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and X-Files leading the pack with a huge amount of episodes. Here’s to hoping that some good ones come back. I already miss Fringe.