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The Final Frontier: Why Won't TV Invest in Smart Sci-Fi?

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | November 21, 2014 | Comments ()

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | November 21, 2014 |


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I saw Interstellar last week. It was good.

The previous two sentences explain why the Pajibadults review movies, and I post GIFs.

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What struck me most about Interstellar was how rare it is for foundational hard science fiction themes — astrophysics, relativity, cosmic exploration, sarcastic robots — show up in filmed entertainment. Every now and then a sci-fi film is interested in more than epic destruction and warring alien species. Contact. Sunshine. Gravity. You have to dig a little to find the gems, but they exist.

On the big screen, anyway. Nothing on television remotely resembles Interstellar. And that makes no goddamn sense.

Few genres remain as unexplored on television as science fiction. Even in the midst of an unprecedented original programming explosion that has everyone from streaming services to Keurig machines scrambling to develop compelling content, sci-fi remains a last resort. No major non-broadcast station — HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, FX, AMC, Starz, Sundance, Amazon, or Netflix — has a space-set sci-fi show in their programming stable. AMC is the only one with a science fiction property even in development (a remake of the Channel 4’s Humans). CNN’s Don “Dickbiter” Lemon wondering if the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared into an event horizon represents the most sci-fi aired by a cable network in years.

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It’s damn near 2015. Memes get primetime Christmas specials. ABC built a series around taking pictures of yourself and posting them online. Yet a show about mankind travelling the stars can’t get can’t even get a pilot script order?*

*Any SyFy employee still reading this probably stroked out right here. Yes, I know your network exists. But outside of Battlestar Galactica, which is one of the 10 best television series of the last 20 years, you have a Matt Flynn problem. One strong performance does not a career make. I’m cautiously optimistic about your investment in both the Old Man’s War and Expanse series, and I hope you continue down that path instead of dedicating resources to shark-related weather phenomena.

Broadcast networks avoiding high-concept science fiction makes a certain logical sense. The audience for that type of show hasn’t watched the Big Four in a decade, and networks have neither the development expertise nor the desire to back a series that can’t be promoted with hashtags. Serialized cop/lawyer/doctor dramas keep the lights on at 30 Rock and Burbank now. Wandering outside the holy trinity would only end in disaster.

Cable outlets have no such excuse. FX, AMC, HBO and their contemporaries rose to prominence by investing in outlier programming considered unsuitable for broadcast networks. They identified a massive underserved audience desperate for mature counterprogramming and gave the people what they wanted, so much so that flawed male antihero protagonists are practically tropes today. In a crowded marketplace teeming with imitators, cable needs new arenas to conquer. Science fiction — the type capable of winning Best Drama Emmys, not just Saturn Awards — can be that next growth area.

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The evidence is everywhere. Small-screen successes like Game of Thrones and NyQuil: The Series Outlander prove audiences will gravitate to well-made series set in unfamiliar worlds. Millions fork over the equivalent of a monthly HBO subscription to see two-hour science fiction films in theaters. The last four “space-based” sci-fi films to hit cinemas — Interstellar, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Trek: Into Darkness — earned a combined $2.27 billion in worldwide box office. That’s not counting ancillary revenue like home video, international distribution, syndication rights, and merchandise. Television studios can tap those same revenue streams (Game of Thrones recouped its $60 million first season budget from home video sales alone) while delivering a sustainable product that keeps audiences coming back week after week. Get one viewer to shell out $50 for three months of premium cable compared to $14 for a movie ticket, and it becomes much easier for television execs to authorize nine-figure production budgets.

As with everything, the money matters. Home video sales and subscriber growth don’t materialize if the series is shit. To develop great sci-fi, networks need to make the Brinks truck beep. Strong writing is paramount — science fiction shouldn’t feel any less realistic than a show about Baltimore police — but production values are a close second. Think about how much it cost to fake the moon landing! Nothing shatters a sense of wonder faster than special effects that look like they were made with a free app. Worlds need to feel lived in, authentic, tactile. Gorgeous cosmic vistas are essential. That all comes with a Neiman Marcus price tag.

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If the original concepts landing on network desks are putrid garbage, adapt existing properties. Peter Watts’ terrific, terrifying novel Blindsight explores whether consciousness an evolutionary impediment by detailing an encounter between humans and a hyperintelligent organism completely unaware of its own existence. Turn that book and its sequel, Echopraxia, into a pair of miniseries. Both include vampires, if that helps. The Red Mars trilogy chronicles the colonization of Mars over a 200 year period. “I’m in,” says every available A-list actor looking to trade a short-term commitment for an Emmy. Maybe those concepts are a little too heady. Can I interest you in The Forever War, a Band of Brothers-style series recounting a thousand-year interstellar conflict against an alien species? Sorry, you’ll have to repeat your answer. It’s hard to hear over the sound of your throbbing erection.

Television, with its ability to let complex, galaxy-spanning stories unfold slowly, is a natural home for intelligent science fiction. Source material is available. Audiences are ready to invest their time and money. It’s time someone gave them what they want.


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