Can sci-fi be saved?

Movies like “Avatar” have been huge hits, but on the small screen, the genre’s not doing that well

Can sci-fi be saved?

Brook Rushton/FOX; ABC/Getty; Archive Photos/Getty; USA Cable Entertainment LLC/Keystone

Seeing the kind of publicity buildup Fox is giving to Terra Nova (premiering Sept. 26 on CityTV), you might think it was the last hope for science fiction on network television—and maybe it is. The show is about a family from a dystopian future that escapes to a prehistoric past, complete with CGI dinosaur fights and hints about hidden conspiracies. The network has high hopes for it: Landon Liboiron (Degrassi), who plays a rebellious teenage son, told Maclean’s the network has made the publicity into “a huge thing.” There’s a special sense of urgency surrounding both this show and the same network’s Alcatraz, from J.J. Abrams (Lost) about mysteriously ageless prison escapees. Every season there’s a science fiction show from a broadcast network that is supposed to be a big hit like Lost, or the drama that made Fox’s reputation, The X-Files, but it’s been years since any of them worked. If audiences reject this year’s sci-fi shows, it might be taken as a sign that no matter how much money a network spends, sci-fi isn’t mainstream anymore.

In the last few years, sci-fi movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Avatar have been big hits. But television has been another story. “It’s really bizarre,” says Jeff Pinkner, a showrunner on Abrams’s Fringe (in which an FBI-led team investigates unexplained phenomena), “People really want to accept it in a movie theatre, but on television, they’re like, I don’t know.” Ajay Fry, who covers science fiction as one of the hosts of Space’s InnerSPACE show, thinks the networks have been “too focused on trying to create something ‘like’ Lost or ‘like’ Battlestar Galactica,” and the result has been a lot of expensive, highly hyped failures. Some of those failures were original creations like last season’s The Event, a wildly promoted drama about a huge mystery involving aliens. Others attempted to recreate the days when sci-fi was popular: ABC spent two seasons trying to get an audience for a new version of V, the ’80s invasion allegory. One long-running sci-fi show after another has retired with nothing much to replace it; the CW network’s Supernatural is the only remnant of the youth-oriented genre shows that were popular in the ’00s.

On cable, things brightened up this summer with Falling Skies, where ER’s Noah Wylie leads a resistance movement against alien oppressors. But other cable networks are cutting back on the genre: the Syfy network has introduced the dramas Warehouse 13 and Alphas, but also some inexpensive reality shows. And on highbrow cable networks, viewers seem more willing to accept fantasy shows than sci-fi. Game of Thrones and True Blood are two of the most popular shows on HBO, a network that does not program sci-fi. Ron Moore, creator of the revamped Battlestar Galactica, once told Entertainment Weekly that high-end audiences avoided his show because of the subject matter. “Science fiction sort of has a rap,” Pinkner adds. “We’re running against that as far as viewership goes.” Magic and vampires are in; alien conspiracies and futuristic devices are a harder sell.

If science fiction TV doesn’t always excite viewers these days, it might just be a victim of its own success: the futuristic devices of sci-fi have become part of shows that aren’t technically sci-fi at all. CSI, the most popular and imitated TV franchise of the ’00s, was known for introducing absurdly powerful computers and stylized high-tech facilities into the world of ordinary TV mysteries. A common theme in the wake of these shows is that the future, as science fiction used to describe it, is right now: the new drama Person of Interest uses post-9/11 surveillance equipment to drive its stories, while the period procedural Murdoch Mysteries is based on the joke that today’s police methods would seem like science fiction in the late 19th century. Who needs a supernatural mystery like The X-Files when the mystery-solving on Bones is already sort of supernatural?

There’s also the matter of modern sci-fi TV’s more complex and demanding storytelling. Many of the most successful science fiction shows were built around short, self-contained stories—starting with The Twilight Zone, an anthology show where new characters met some twist ending every week. The X-Files alternated episodes about a big ongoing conspiracy with many single-episode mysteries. In the U.K., the current incarnation of Doctor Who frequently features self-contained episodes along with the story arcs. Even Lost, the most successful serialized science fiction show, began with a slightly more episodic format than it had later.

Today’s science fiction fans and producers tend to prefer the ongoing stories of the Battlestar Galactica remake, instead of the weekly adventures of the original. Though it’s a family-oriented series, Terra Nova follows this modern style by emphasizing big mysteries that may pay off someday; a character darkly hints that someday we’ll learn “the real reason for Terra Nova’s existence: control the past, control the future.” Fry says that these arcs require “more than alpha state brainwaves” from the average viewer, while stand-alone episodes are “easier to digest.” But he admits that heavily serialized sci-fi shows “are going to have trouble convincing a casual watcher to stay tuned and tune in regularly.” Recent shows seem to bear that out: The Event started with high ratings for its first episode, thanks to a massive marketing campaign. But the ratings tapered off and fell to almost nothing as viewers started to realize that every episode would just be a series of scenes about an “event” that never seemed to happen. Fringe has lost viewers since its less serialized first season, although the show has blossomed creatively, and Pinkner says that “we’d rather try to keep our core fans satisfied and happy than water it down to try and get new viewers.”

Still, that core fan base can be very valuable to a network, because sci-fi shows tend to have more passionate fans than any other type of show. TNT found that by introducing Falling Skies, it not only got a lot of viewers, but more online coverage than its hit cop shows. And in other formats outside of television, like DVD, sci-fi shows perform better than many of the biggest hits. Joel Wyman, who runs Fringe with Pinkner, says that the show’s fans are “the most committed. They’ll go with us through anything. They’re a large part of why we’re still on the air, obviously. I don’t want to say they’re more intelligent, but they show up to look at things that you don’t get a chance to do on regular network television.” Liboiron also thinks there’s something especially interesting, both to fans and actors, about the genre: “You regress into kindergarten again, where you’re creating a world before your own eyes.”

Science fiction also matters to TV creators because it allows them to comment, metaphorically, on issues that would be too sensitive in any other type of show. Falling Skies, like Battlestar Galactica, is about a world where humans have mostly been wiped out and a few remaining people fight to survive. In a realistic setting, this would be an unbelievably depressing subject; when it’s aliens who are murdering and brainwashing humans, it becomes exciting escapist entertainment.“It gives us an opportunity to do these great morality tales,” Pinkner says of Fringe, “that you don’t really get with a normal cop show. You can pose some existential questions like ‘how much is too much knowledge?’ ” Terra Nova, with its story of a world ravaged by climate change, is appearing at a time when most shows avoid that issue for fear of being preachy. By setting the story in a horrifying future, a show can make the issue seem more immediate and yet more distant, just like the threat of a massive disease is less scary in Rise of the Planet of the Apes than in Contagion.

To get the fan base and social relevance that networks crave, though, a show first has to make some money. And no one knows yet whether Terra Nova, whose debut has been delayed for a year because of cost overruns and producer replacements, will make sci-fi TV financially viable again. And as footage of expensive special effects from the show becomes common on YouTube, the people involved are slowly starting to point out that there are people involved, too; Liboiron says viewers should relate to his character because he’s “the essence of adolescence in Terra Nova.” As science fiction TV costs more money and fewer people watch it, one thing remains constant, Fry says: there needs to be “at least one humanoid to anchor our audience into these out-of-this-world experiences.” The big question of this season is whether Terra Nova, Alcatraz, and other shows contain any interesting humanoids.

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