The way it was.
When I was a kid there was an emergent wave of science fiction and fantasy films in the multiplexes. “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Superman: The Movie,” as well as countless lesser-quality imitators of each, such as “Starcrash” (an exceptionally awful movie), “Hangar 18” (a dumbed-down “X-Files” precursor) and “Flash Gordon” (a movie affectionately remembered for reasons I don’t understand).
Movies have been “chasing Star Wars” ever since.
Big event films are largely the norm these days, with a large chunk of a movie’s grosses made in opening weekend business as well as foreign box office (especially from China, where much studio financing comes from these days…).
The ‘Star Wars-effect’ in cinematic sci-fi/fantasy has been both a blessing and a curse. While this effect has popularized the genre like never before, it has also (arguably) made it more ‘style over substance’ at times. Even TV’s “Star Trek” rode Star Wars’ wave, bringing Star Trek onto the big screen with the splashy, opulently-appointed “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Studios today take much advantage of the built-in consumer nostalgia/recognition that comes with sequels, remakes, reimaginings, or a property based on a popular book/graphic novel, etc. I’m not knocking this tendency, either. These event movies run up huge tabs, and it’s understandable if studios are a bit skittish about investment return. Frankly, if using pre-sold properties were such a bad idea, audiences wouldn’t keep flocking to see these movies, right?
The old days of word-of-mouth, finding an audience, and slow-burn box office (“Held over for a 7th straight week!”) are pretty much history. These days, movies have to be successful right out of the gate or they’re done for.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post…science fiction/fantasy television.
As a kid, most of the good stuff was what I saw in reruns or syndication; “The Twilight Zone” (my first TV show love), “Star Trek” (of course), “The Outer Limits”, “Space: 1999” and “Lost in Space.” Those were, more or less, the staples of the TV diet of my youth. Most of them caught in either late-night, early morning or other odd time slots other than evening prime-time.
In the late 1980s, late-night syndication afforded me the chance to finally watch and appreciate the late Patrick McGoohan’s passion project-1967 TV series, “The Prisoner” (one of the greatest mind-f–k series ever made, IMHO).
While I grew up loving these shows (and still do), new quality sci-fi television content in my childhood was pretty scarce. The best offerings were primarily in reruns.
This was a time (late ‘70s/early ‘80s) before computer-generated imagery lowered the cost of visual effects to a more practical level. More traditional, time-consuming and expensive means were used to create spaceships zipping through space, such as detailed miniatures shot against blue screens in multiple motion-control passes. These kinds of FX-heavy shows were in demand at the time, riding the post-“Star Wars” wave. But given their expense and time-consuming production logistics, we didn’t see shows like that very often.
So, in short, the pickings were slim in those days…
During my wonder years, the creme de la creme of science fiction television (in the US, anyway) consisted of “Battlestar Galactica” (the 1978 version, with the ape in the robot ‘daggit’ suit), “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (all hail spandex) and the quasi-remake of “My Favorite Martian” known as “Mork and Mindy”, which still holds today up in places, largely due to the firebrand genius of the young (and sadly late) Robin Williams. That was pretty much it.
My first non-canonical exposure to the adventures of “Doctor Who” came via the two 1960s Peter Cushing Doctor Who feature films, “Doctor Who and the Daleks” (1965) and “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150” (1966). I remember watching these two movies on late afternoon television in the mid-1970s, and I just loved the Daleks.
A few years later, the real “Doctor Who” (the actual Time Lord variety, not Peter Cushing’s eccentric human inventor) finally came to American TV (via American Public Television, aka PBS). I remember watching a few random episodes and enjoying it. I started watching it more regularly when my then-landlady (and friend) reawakened my dormant Whovian gene in the 1980s. A few years later, I eagerly watched the 1996 Paul McGann Doctor Who TV-movie, though I recognized that it wasn’t exactly perfect.
January of 1980 was a particularly ambitious month for television science fiction when I was young. The kind of science fiction I was reading in print at the time seemed to be finally making its way to TV; with NBC TV’s adaptation of my favorite sci-fi anthology book, Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” and PBS’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven.”
The TV version of “The Martian Chronicles” was a decidedly mixed bag (some of those same stories were done far better in the 1980s Showtime series “Ray Bradbury Theater”). But these superior, literary-based efforts were the first indicators I’d seen that then-present day science fiction TV could be more than just blasters, spandex, robots and spaceships.
Anyway, that was pretty much the sum total of science fiction television of my childhood in the late ‘70s through the early ‘80s.
Over the decades, I’ve seen TV science fiction make tremendous strides in popularity, quality and quantity. During my mid-to-late 20s, there was a slow but steady trickle of science fiction programming on TV. The biggest hit was “The X-Files” (a show I passionately loved in its first 4 or 5 seasons, until it kinda jumped the shark a bit after the 1998 movie).
There were also the various incarnations of Star Trek (“The Next Generation” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager”). The mid-1990s was truly a great time to be Star Trek fan. There were also other beloved gems such as “Space: Above and Beyond” (kind of a precursor to Ron Moore’s reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” a decade later) and the 5 year run of “Babylon 5” (a series I never really got into, sadly…).
Later on, there was (of course) the “Stargate SG-1” TV series as well. I’d seen the 1994 theatrical film “Stargate” (and wasn’t terribly impressed). Later, I’d watched a few episodes of the series here and there, but it just never stuck with me. Nothing quantifiably wrong with it (my wife used to watch it when it ran uncensored on Showtime) but, like “Babylon 5,” it just wasn’t for me.
Hey, some people like Coke, I like Pepsi. Simple as that.
This is now.
I’m in my early 50s now, and science fiction television is far better and more prolific than I’ve ever seen (or imagined I’d be seeing) in my lifetime. Visual effects, via CGI, have become somewhat cheaper and easier to create; certainly easier than bulky models shot in motion control. 10-year olds working on their iPhones can make halfway decent visual effects these days, and this democratization of moviemaking technology has pushed the boundaries of the medium toward increasingly high quality product. Not just in visuals, but also in storytelling as well.
Current new scifi TV favorites of mine include the revived “Doctor Who” (the show came back 13 years ago, and it’s better than ever), HBO’s “Westworld” (the smartest sci-fi reimagining since Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica”), SyFy’s “The Expanse” (a slow-burner that has completely won me over), “HUMANS” (the UK-remake of the original Swedish series; it’s a more meat-and-potatoes answer to “Westworld”), and a kick-ass Netflix revival of “Lost in Space” (after several tries, they seem to have finally got the mix just right). There is also the recent CBS-All Access streaming-only series of “Star Trek: Discovery,” which seems to be finding its way after an opulent, but slightly uneven inaugural season. There are so many more new sci-fi shows (network, cable and streaming) that I simply don’t have time, life energy or attention span to give them all a decent shot, to be honest.
If I have a complaint, it’s that there is too much quality programming to keep track of, especially given my increasingly fragile attention span and decreased brain capacity (it’s called getting old, folks…).
It’s truly an embarrassment of riches.
I won’t even go into all of the Marvel shows, as my current Marvel burnout limits my fragile attention span to just the Marvel movies, I’m afraid. I tried “Agents of SHIELD” (ABC) but it just didn’t grab hold of my imagination. That said, I do very much miss “Agent Carter”; that show was a cut above the standard action pack. It was terrific.
It’s not just the number of shows available either… it’s the quality.
Television seasons are also much shorter these days, going from an average of about two dozen episodes a season in the 1990s, to about a dozen or so a season now (give or take). Some fans are upset about these new shorter seasons, but for me? Shorter is sweeter. Less episodes a season means a higher concentration of quality in both writing and production value, so shorter seasons are a plus as far as I’m concerned. We fans see less ‘filler’ episodes these days, especially with serialized storytelling arcs that have become the norm since the early 2000s. Each plot thread is more important to the overall tapestry of the season (or even to the whole of the series).
While some lament having fewer standalone episodes, I’m okay with it. Movies are the current venue for such ‘one night’ storytelling; television is the long-term commitment type. Since enjoying one or the other isn’t an act of moral infidelity, I feel no guilt over enjoying a nice, flashy ‘one-night stand’ at the movies, and then coming home to another installment in the ongoing sagas of “Westworld” or “Star Trek Discovery.” You can have both in this life, and it’s okay.
It’s also one of the reasons I could never understand the “Star Wars versus Star Trek” argument; why does it have to be one or the other? There’s plenty of room for each, as far as I’m concerned. Star Wars is a creature native to the silver screen, best enjoyed on a large, overwhelmingly venue. Star Trek works best in the more thoughtful, character-driven medium of television. Though modern sci-fi television today really gives movies a hell of a run for their money…
The new wave of today’s sci-fi shows are as handsomely made and visually complex as motion pictures of only 25 or so years ago. An average TV episode of “The Expanse” could take the Pepsi challenge with just about any mid-1990s space opera film. The current trend of serialized storytelling makes them far more involving as well. With today’s televisions being so large (and with near-theatrical quality sound), sci-fi TV shows of today are ongoing, weekly motion pictures.
So, what really separates the two mediums these days? Not much.
A little over 12 years ago, my wife and I attended a screening of an episode of Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” (“Lay Down Your Burdens,” Part 1) at the Director’s Guild Theater in Los Angeles. The event was sponsored by the MTR (Museum of Television and Radio) and the full cast was in attendance. My wife and I even sat right behind director Kevin Smith (“Clerks” “Chasing Amy”) and his wife (!). The episode was projected on the giant DGT theatre screen in pristine high-definition and in multichannel sound. Honestly, it looked as good as (and occasionally better than) most movies I’ve ever seen in theatrical release. That night was an interesting lesson for me in just how much the line between movies and television was blurring, even 12 years ago.
A more recent example was when I attended the screening of the first episode of Neflix’s new “Lost in Space” at WonderCon in Anaheim this past March. Once again, this ‘television’ show was projected on a large screen in the Arena auditorium of the convention center. Once again, as with the BSG screening 12 years earlier, “Lost in Space”’s first episode played like a short film.
Where this blurring of the mediums is ultimately going, I have no idea.
In my praise of modern science fiction television, I don’t want to sound as if I dismiss the motion picture medium, either. There are still plenty of interesting science fiction movies coming out all of the time. Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” was absolutely riveting and had a unique, almost-Soviet era science fiction feel to it. In recent years, there have been intelligent, one-off science fiction films that weren’t entirely driven by space dogfights or shooting at armies of CGI alien robots (“Gravity” “Interstellar” “The Martian” and “The Arrival” all come to mind).
But, as I’ve said before, all of these films were terrific ‘one night stands’ and I enjoyed each of them immensely, but by design they don’t (or can’t) offer the kind of deeper ongoing experience of a series. You couldn’t see what happened to Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney in the years after he returned from Mars in “The Martian”, or what happened to astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) after he finally rejoined astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway) on her new world at the end of “Interstellar.” Television series give you deeper access into the character relationships that movies simply can’t.
I simply can’t imagine the complexities and nuances of the new “Westworld” being shoehorned into a 90 minute feature film frame, like its 1973 antecedent.
Since the visual qualities of both mediums are pretty much a match these days, that freedom to explore in greater depth is the single, greatest advantage of sci-fi television (or streaming).
For me, that’s reason enough to savor this new, high quality wave of science television. Here’s hoping it lasts as long as possible.