Science Fiction: The Great Divide Part 2

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?

1) Content
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.

2) Character
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.

Conclusion
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.

Science Fiction: The Great Divide Part 1

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.