Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV During the Long 1990s

By Nader Elhefnawy



The decade or so beginning in 1993 has been described by many over the years as a "golden age" for North American science fiction television (broadly defined). True, those years certainly did not mark the first appearance of the genre in that medium, which goes back all the way back to television’s roots with Captain Video. In the years that followed, anthology series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, space operas like Lost in Space, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, sitcoms like The Jetsons and My Favorite Martian, paranormal-themed shows like the soap opera Dark Shadows and the wryly comic Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the cyberpunk series Max Headroom, and the time-jumping drama Quantum Leap, among others, won legions of fans, influenced later production and in general left lasting marks on pop culture. And of course, there were plenty of innovative imports from abroad, particularly Japanese anime from Astro Boy on, and British production like Dr. Who, The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Prisoner, Red Dwarf, and of course, Blake's 7 (little seen and known here in the States, but hailed by many as the Ur-story to every un-Star Trek and anti-Star Trek out there).

Nonetheless, the sheer volume of U.S. and Canadian production concentrated in the 1990s was staggering, much of it dross but some of it certainly of high quality. More importantly, a good deal of it built on what came before, further developing old concepts or moving in previously unexplored or rarely explored directions. Whatever one chooses to label it, it was an active and fertile period, and it is well worth taking a "big picture" look at it. This article explores the decade’s output, examining some of the circumstances that fostered it, the patterns it followed, and the product that came out of it, which defined genre television as it is today and likely will remain for some time to come.

The Rise (and Decline) of the Syndication and Cable Market

The resurgence of science fiction on television was notably not driven by the interest of the major American networks, least of all the Big Three (ABC, NBC and CBS) or the Big Four (the Big Three, plus FOX), though they did make some noteworthy efforts, especially FOX. (That channel, after all, was home to the long-running X-Files, Sliders, Dark Angel and the short-lived cult hit Firefly.)

In fact, the two "upstart" networks that appeared in the middle of the decade--Warner Brothers (WB) and the United Paramount Network (UPN) played a bigger part. Much of the WB's most successful programming was in the fantasy genre, mostly youth-oriented, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel, and the eight-season Charmed. UPN appeared, for a time, to be defining itself as a science fiction channel of sorts, not only with its two new Star Trek series (Voyager and Enterprise), but original shows like Seven Days, its taking over of many genre cast-offs from the WB (like Roswell, or Buffy) and a heavy investment in made-for-TV movies like The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy and the three Chameleon movies.

Even more than on those networks, however, the boom was most evident in the market for first-run syndicated dramatic series of this type (which Star Trek: The Next Generation helped kick-start); and the rising level of production of original material for cable, particularly the Showtime network and the Sci-Fi Channel. Back in the fall of 2000, for instance, the WB affiliate in my area (channel 39) ran a solid ten hour block of syndicated science fiction and fantasy shows (including Xena: Warrior Princess, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda) Saturday noon to ten P.M., and this by no means exhausted the content, other shows running in different time slots, and on other stations.

Meanwhile, from the mid-1990s on Showtime produced a number of notable science fiction and fantasy shows, including the revival of The Outer Limits, the long-running Stargate SG-1 and the miniseries Tales From a Parallel Universe (also known as Lexx: The Dark Zone). The Sci-Fi Channel, which would eventually pick up all three of these, also made a contribution of its own as the home of first-run shows like Farscape and The Invisible Man.

This situation did not continue, of course. The UPN and WB--which changed their profiles years ago--no longer even exist, merged instead in the CW, which still produces WB carry-overs Smallville and Supernatural, and introduced Reaper in the fall of 2007, but is less closely identified with such material than before. The number of syndicated science fiction series has contracted even more dramatically, reruns of the two Stargate series all that remains of the once-mighty Saturday programming block in my area. Showtime largely abandoned science fiction, opting to follow a path more like the one charted out by HBO with The Sopranos and Sex and the City. On Sci-Fi the Stargate franchise seems to be winding down, with the original series canceled last year and the spin-off Atlantis going into its fifth season; Battlestar Galactica, too, is in its last season. More recent Sci-Fi productions, like Painkiller Jane and Flash Gordon, have not generated the same excitement, with both unceremoniously dumped after the first season.

Surprisingly, this returns the initiative to the big networks, which have taken more of an interest in such series after the success of Lost, which was hyped as if creator J.J. Abrams had only just invented the story arc. (This had of course been a staple of science fiction television through the 1990s.) This helped to inspire a renewal of interest among the networks in one-hour dramas, many of which contain a speculative element, like last season's Heroes and Jericho, and this past season's Bionic Woman and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

However, the enthusiasm may be fading with the inevitable flops piling up. (Jericho, notably, has been twice canceled at the time of this writing, and Bionic Woman will not be returning for the fall 2008 season.) Besides, there is virtually no prospect of media executives abandoning their nauseating love affair with game shows, reality shows and other cheap, "unscripted," mind-numbing programming, which is by no means confined to the major networks. (Indeed, even the Sci-Fi Channel, the very name of which ought to preclude reality shows from its line-up, produces plenty of them, like Ghost Hunters and Who Wants to be a Superhero?) The 2007-8 Writers' Guild of America Strike, which disrupted the production schedules of many of these shows last year, will likely reinforce this.

It should also be noted that there are certain places the networks will rarely go creatively. There is, after all, a nineteenth century "realist" prejudice among many of the critics and much of the audience which manifests itself in the outlook that anything not recognizably a part of daily life diminishes the drama, and the assumption that fiction with ideas must be bad fiction. Besides that, old stereotypes about speculative fiction in its televised form as hopelessly mired in Golden Age and pulp adventure clichés somehow persist.

Not surprisingly shows with a "softer" speculative element tend to be an easier sell. By that I do not mean science fiction using the soft rather than hard sciences, but science fiction which doesn't look the part (meaning that exotic settings and characters, advanced technology and spectacular action are all downplayed), or at least looks it only intermittently, like Quantum Leap or The X-Files--or better still, supernatural dramas like Medium or Ghost Whisperer.

This being the case it doesn't strike me as unreasonable to say that the "Golden Age" is over. I do not mean by this that we are looking at the end of science fiction on television, or that this output will not be outdone someday, but that for the foreseeable future fans of science fiction television, particularly the harder variety, will be looking at leaner times--and that we probably have enough distance on the whole thing to take a good look at what did come of a relatively fertile period.

The Stars My Destination: The Return of the Space Opera to Television
While the '90s is remembered as the decade of the "tech boom," Microsoft, the Internet and Y2K, a time in which cyberspace decisively trumped outer space, the picture was reversed in our entertainment. There was, to be sure, a considerable output of computer-themed film and television during those years. In any such rush to capitalize on a trend, of course, there is naturally going to be a great deal of mediocrity--but exceptions to that mediocrity are surprisingly few, and virtually none of these were on television. (Anyone remember the television spin-off to The Net, or Level 9?)

Instead it was the resurgence in production about that most classic science fiction milieu of all, space, which dominated the screens in that decade, and arguably space-themed shows were at the very center of the "golden age" of science fiction television that began in the middle of it.

The major networks were particularly absent here. CBS's sole, weak effort was the short-lived Space Rangers. FOX took a couple of shots with Space: Above and Beyond and the cult sensation Firefly, NBC one of its own with Earth 2 (though one might also see something of the kind in Seaquest, which played like an underwater Star Trek in an era of ocean colonization of the kind much talked about in the 1970s).

This is not all that surprising, given the especially unhappy history of that part of the genre on television. Even Star Trek didn't live out to the end of its anticipated "five-year mission," and it has been a very long time since a space-themed series was renewed after its second season on one of the Big Four--or even a first.

Economics seems to be the main reason. Based on the genre's share of book sales, film receipts and television ratings, my guess is that the core audience for that kind of programming is 10-15 million in the U.S., too small a pie for even a big slice of it to sustain a network show in prime time. However, the abundance of syndicated and cable programming, which can get by with smaller audiences, widened the possibilities there to allow for a prodigious output. Even excluding shows that failed to get a second season like Earth 2, Space: Above and Beyond and Mercy Point; Earthbound alien stories with only an occasional foray off-world like Earth: Final Conflict; and animated programming like Tripping the Rift; there were frequently five space-themed shows in their first run at any given time. (In the fall of 2000, for instance, there was Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate: SG-1, Farscape, Andromeda and Lexx for fans to choose from. Starhunter, which only reached my area two years later, also premiered in Canada that November.)

Moreover, the product itself made the denigrating clichés widely believed about "media" science fiction utterly untenable after this time (however much general audiences continue to believe them). J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, for instance, may have featured starships and laser guns in a tale of galactic war, but its future was definitely not "The Future" of Gernsback and Campbell. Alfred Bester was more like it, so much so that homage was paid him in a recurring character, a Demolished Man-style "Psi Corps" agent named, of all things, Alfred Bester--though along with a feel for the dark, bleak underbelly of tomorrowland there was a strong sense of epic romance. (Tolkien was just as evident as Bester, along with a multitude of other literary, cinematic and philosophical influences.) Thanks in part to the intelligence and literacy of the execution, this seemingly incongruous mix worked surprisingly well on an episodic level. Along with the meticulously constructed five-season arc that truly felt like a single story (so that the narrative was exceptionally coherent, the pace breathtakingly fast at times, and the big plot twists packed real punch), it did a great deal to realize its creator's goal of a television science fiction novel for adults.

While Straczynski brought something of Bester's image of the future to the screen, North American television got its first truly New Wave science fiction show in Lexx--and I mean that in the best, broadest possible sense. This saga of "losers in space" could be wildly uneven, as its own writers testify, but it was unquestionably quirky, playful and experimental, and moved deftly between the blackest black comedy and the most soaring romanticism--and often succeeded brilliantly on both those levels.

Where the wonderful weirdness of Lexx seemed evident from the first shot, many of the other big shows of the period looked rather clichéd at first glance--Farscape, Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica. Farscape, after all, started off with the familiar premise of a conventionally rugged astronaut-type (John Crichton) testing a new space vehicle and finding himself all at once very far from home. Moreover, quite a few of the episodes fell back on very well-worn ideas. (In "Out of Their Minds," characters switched bodies; in "I Shrink Therefore I Am," they get shrunk down to tiny size by their enemies; they even get stuck in video games. And there was not always the excuse that the writers were "subverting the cliche." Often, it was just plain cliché.) However, the show got considerably more interesting as it progressed, developing a sophisticated and engaging story arc about trying to "uninvent the Bomb" on the eve of a galactic war. The core group of characters was interesting, the visual aesthetic distinctive, the multi-part season finales consistently dramatic and spectacular, and The Peacekeeper Wars miniseries offered a conclusion the creators could be proud of.

Joss Whedon's Firefly may have seemed even less promising, playing into the biggest space opera cliché of all--space adventure stories as westerns with the horses traded for rocket ships and six-shooters for futuristic firepower. Far from retreating from it, the show embraced the idea more completely than anyone might have anticipated, and the results proved strong enough that Orson Scott Card cited it as proof that even this brand of television science fiction had finally become "every bit as good as anything in print."

The last and perhaps biggest of these surprises was the new Battlestar Galactica, this being a remake of a 1970s television series that was a cynical attempt to cash in on the post-Star Wars science fiction craze the first time around. Beginning as a four-hour miniseries and "stealth pilot" on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2003, the show started to air regularly from January 2005 on, and quickly won a great deal of respect from critics (even if it was largely ignored by the mainstream audience the producers hoped to win over).

The praise was excessive in my view. The writing was often silly, sensationalist, muddled and inconsistent (especially in its running post-Nine-Eleven commentary), its gimmicks more derivative than casual viewers of science fiction generally appreciated, and the theory of "naturalistic" science fiction touted by the writers really much ado about nothing. However, the cast was impressive, the attention to character considerable, the technical craftsmanship the genre's gold standard (not just the special effects, but the photography, editing and sound, often of feature film quality), and even if it couldn’t always live up to it, the ambition was certainly there, which helped give the show more than its share of truly tense moments.

While less appreciated in this regard, even the new Star Trek series were no exception to this new direction, all of them considerably more polished and sophisticated than the original series, with 1993's Deep Space Nine the stand-out. Benefiting from the most interesting group of characters assembled for any of the five series, it also featured the sharpest satire (much of it centered on Ferengi barkeep Quark), and thanks to the Dominion War, much of the richest and most exciting drama in the Star Trek franchise's history. The series also managed to retain its distinctiveness despite the similarity of its premise to the contemporaneous Babylon 5.

The Truth Is Out There?
Humans weren't always going out into space to meet aliens during these years, the aliens often coming to them. It was certainly so in science fiction television's biggest mainstream success during the decade, The X-Files. It ran a full nine seasons on FOX and often commanded ten percent of the viewing audience in its time slot during its run, as well as spawning numerous spin-offs--including two television series and a series of feature films, the second of which has just started shooting. It also garnered an impressive sixty-one Emmy nominations, including over a dozen for writing, acting and overall production, as well as in the technical categories to which such shows are usually limited.

The show's broader interest in the paranormal would (along with the appearance of the vampire drama Forever Knight the same year) prefigure later hits like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It would also epitomize the fascination with conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials in many of the television shows which followed.

Cultural history suggests that the popularity of this idea during the decade, while not unprecedented (The X-Files had precursors in shows like The Twilight Zone, Kolchak The Night Stalker and Tales From the Darkside), was also not accidental. As Tom Engelhardt notes in his recently reissued study The End of Victory Culture, UFO buffs were perhaps the only group openly critical of the government during the Cold War which managed to escape being stigmatized as unpatriotic or traitorous--arguably, making the interest in aliens the safest way for Americans to express mistrust of the establishment. (Such mistrust, notably, was more evident in the mainstream than usual in the 1990s, amid all the talk of a New World Order and black helicopters on the political right.)

As Engelhardt also notes, the notion of real-world "enemyness" had become increasingly problematic, even before the conclusion of the Cold War. Additionally, even where people could and did buy into it, the "rogue states," terrorists and potential Hitlers of rickety or rising superpowers simply couldn't fill the niche that the disappearance of the Soviet Union opened up, as evidenced by the weakness of the spy (and "spy-fi") genre from that time on. The villains tended to be vaguely defined, and the shows often compensated for it by devoting enormous time to bureaucratic politics. The Orwellian torturefest La Femme Nikita--created by Joel Surnow, the man who later brought you 24--is a case in point. (With opponents like "Red Cell," it played like a Cold War story twenty years out of date.)

One result was that tales of action and suspense commonly sought their villains elsewhere. Some found it in the prospect of the technological Singularity, with the Enemy typically a small, secretive group intent on controlling the evolution of the species--as in ABC's short-lived Strange World, or "Chrysalis" in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man. However, extraterrestrials were the preferred source of threat, whether real or merely perceived. This was the case not only with shows like Dark Skies, or the Sci-Fi Channel's mammoth, big-budget miniseries Taken in 2002 (which had very similar premises in their accent on the Roswell mythology), but First Wave and Earth: Final Conflict.

The result was a mixed bag, including The X-Files itself, which inspired and helped make possible so many of these others. While it did follow a larger arc, that arc's progress was the polar opposite of Babylon 5's, torturously slow and circuitous for my taste when I watched the first run. The vast majority of the episodes, consequently, were one-shots with no bearing on that mythology, tending toward "monster of the week" bits, and that there was always a monster under the bed after all made Dana Scully's pose of "scientific skepticism" quickly grow tiresome from a narrative standpoint.

However, the show was crisp and stylish, and it had its fair share of strong scripts (some contributed by writers like Stephen King and William Gibson). While frequently spinning its wheels with regard to the bigger story, its fictional universe offered plenty of wrinkles well worth examining in the lives of recurring characters, and its sense of humor helped it get by. (The wry "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" was certainly one of my favorites.) The show also touched on numerous difficult, real-world issues with intelligence, all the way down to the series finale, "The Truth," in which Fox Mulder was dragged before a post-9/11 military tribunal.

At the other end of the spectrum, conspiracy theory-wise, was Earth: Final Conflict. Based on a concept Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had been working out prior to the celluloid resurrection of that series in the late 1970s (in fact, he gets the script credit for the first episode), there was never any question that the aliens were here, the Taelons having arrived very publicly. Moreover, they were universally welcomed, in part because that much more advanced race freely bestowed the benefits of its technology on a beleaguered humanity, eliminating evils like pollution, hunger, disease and even war.

The real question, however, was why they were here, and the show centered on the efforts of members of an underground movement trying to find out exactly that. The double-lives the resistance members led working undercover among the Taelons, the enmeshing of human and alien activity while the alien presence increasingly comes to smack of foreign occupation, the intrigue on every side and the possibility that despite all the subterfuge and skullduggery human and Taelon interests might not have been neatly separable after all, made for a strong, complex premise.

The first season of the show proved to be exceptionally taut and intelligent, and while the quality of the show did not remain quite so consistent, it remained compelling as it worked out the core story in the following three seasons. Season five, by contrast, would see the content and tone of the series shift to vampire-hunting vigilantism, with the "Atavus" taking the place of more traditional blood-suckers. Some Internet wags would even joke that Earth: Final Conflict in its last season might have been more aptly named Renee the Atavus Slayer.

A Semester of Buffy Studies
While less remarked upon, but perhaps appreciated by an even broader audience, the upsurge in science fiction was attended by an upsurge in fantasy as well, far beyond the occasional fantastic or paranormal elements in shows like those discussed above. Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation helped get the ball rolling for syndicated programming, so did the Sam Raimi-produced Hercules: The Legendary Journeys play its role. It was not the first successful syndicated period fantasy show at this time (the Highlander series preceded it), but starting with its first appearance of the Action Pak series of made-for-television movies, it ran for six seasons and led to a profusion of such shows, including new takes on figures like Robin Hood, Sinbad, Robert Howard's Conan and Andre Norton's Beastmaster--and of course, Hercules's even more successful spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess. (There were also a number of period science fiction series, including Raimi's own Jack of All Trades, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Gavin Scott's The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, but on the whole these had a lower profile.)

Where many of the space-themed shows and programs styled after The X-Files were celebrated as taking the genre to another level in this medium, few made such claims for these shows. The 1999-2002 Beastmaster series contained some interesting bits about the collision of Stone and Bronze Age cultures, and Xena displayed some narrative ambition in its extended story arc about the demise of the Olympian gods, but for the most part they were conceived as, and received as, light, fast-paced, easy viewing.

Xena's iconic status, notably, had less to do with any ideas, properly speaking, than the gender of its protagonist. That the show featured a female action hero was not as revolutionary as the hype had it, such having been common from the 1970s on, when Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels and The Bionic Woman first appeared--and it is worth noting that a woman took the captain's chair on Star Trek: Voyager a year before Xena's run began. (One can more accurately point to Xena's sexuality as such a "first," given the lesbian "subtext" widely read into the relationship between the protagonist and her sidekick Gabrielle, increasingly acknowledged by the writers during the show's run, which also played its role in making Xena an icon.)

Nonetheless, it played a part in the upsurge in the number of such heroines from the mid-1990s on. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most prominent of these, and perhaps more significant since even if the show was by this point following an established pattern in having a female lead, it did play a bigger part than Xena in redefining those heroines (Xena's most distinguishing characteristics--her formidable physical presence, and her sexuality--finding few imitators). Unlike many of her predecessors, Xena included, Buffy was not a mature, sophisticated adult, but a high school student who at least in her original cinematic incarnation had been something of a "Valley Girl" caricature. Other shows would similarly present younger, less sophisticated heroines, like Dark Angel, or 2007's reimagined Bionic Woman. Not unrelated was the increasing tendency to use science fiction and fantasy as a platform for adolescent soap opera, as with Roswell, Smallville, Birds of Prey--and much later on, the story of Claire Bennett in Heroes.

The larger world created in the process of spinning the feature film out into a television series has itself been the object of enormous interest, not only spawning a successful spin-off--Angel, which ran for five seasons--but a Star Trek-like explosion of guides, trivia books and pop criticism, and an "expanded Buffyverse" receiving the multimedia treatment. The continuation of the two series in straight-to-video format never materialized (virtually none of these schemes having worked out for any show), but at the time of this writing "Season Eight" is being issued in comic book format from Dark Horse, with creator Joss Whedon and other show writers actively participating.

That fan interest in the Buffyverse, notably, has been reflected in the show's impact on academia, which matched the guides for the general audience with an explosion of papers, articles, books and even courses on the subject collectively referred to as "Buffy Studies." A keyword search of the Modern Language Association database for Buffy the Vampire Slayer produces a list of eighty-nine items related to that show, likely a conservative estimate since the word "Buffy" turns up in plenty of vampire-related items not on the list. By contrast, there are seventy-five items for the older and more widely seen X-Files, twenty-one for Babylon 5, and despite its intrinsic interest for women's studies, a mere fifteen for Xena. (Incidentally, Farscape turns up four, and Lexx, zero.)

The Future of the Future
After all that it may seem there is no place left to go, so that even if the market hadn't changed, science fiction television would today just be spinning its wheels, and there is probably some truth to this. One reason is the inherent limitations of the medium, particularly the need to quickly engage a large audience. A short story in even a science fiction magazine paying its writers at "professional" rates can be published to be read by thousands, once. However, a television show done on even a shoestring budget must, in its first thirty or sixty minutes, engage millions sufficiently to keep them coming back, week in, week out, and do that for many years.

This makes anything too weird for an audience that size a risk, however much hardcore fans may crave it, which is likely why extraterrestrial species very different from humans, or futures very different from our present--rare even in print science fiction--remain even rarer here. (J. Michael Straczynski, for instance, has stated that audience reaction to the Babylon 5 pilot, "The Gathering," led him to downplay such exoticism in his series.) Of course, one can reasonably ask whether a drama based on a culture truly alien to our own could remain watchable for very long--let alone a hundred episodes. However, that episodic format also lets the Suits keep creative teams on short leashes, deterring that kind of risk-taking. (It is also why no network show is likely ever to have an arc as lengthy and carefully crafted as Babylon 5's.)

Of course, it is worth remembering that the economics of television, its tendency toward shows which run for scores of hours, offers opportunity as well as limitation, in particular the scope to develop characters, plots and fictional universes, as many of the best series have already demonstrated, and as many series no doubt will go on to do in the future. That affords some reason to hope writers will continue pushing the envelope, though.

It may also be noted that some of the ideas we have yet to see on the small screen are of a surprisingly obvious kind. North American television has generally given short shrift to sword and sorcery-style fantasy, high and low, and so has yet to offer a really sophisticated sword-and-sorcery saga.

Additionally the possibilities of animation--which are far less constrained than live-action programming by television's budgetary limitations--have generally been ignored in the United States. Animation aimed at adults may be reaching a wider audience there than ever before, but it rarely dares to be more than a tweaked variant of familiar family viewing. South Park, for instance, concerns the adventures of four small-town eight year-olds--but loads these adventures with irony, parody, cultural references that go over young viewers' heads, and plenty of scatological, sexual and political humor. The Simpsons, Family Guy and even American Dad do the same with the family sitcom. American animation has yet to make a serious attempt at something like Ghost in the Shell--let alone Grave of the Fireflies.

Of course, it's not clear that American television is on the verge of realizing any of these possibilities (though some fans are no doubt hoping that the upcoming HBO series based on George R.R. Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" saga will do for the small screen what Lord of the Rings did for the big one). Nonetheless, the stumbling block is less the availability of ideas than the willingness of those who command the airwaves to try something new.

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