Next On Sci-Fi Theater…

Over at io9, Charlie Jane asks a very good question:

Is science fiction uniquely suited to blockbuster movies, because it’s a genre that lends itself to explosions and rampant breasts? And conversely, is the Hollywood version of science fiction too action-oriented ever to spawn more quirky, arty shows like Mad Men or Glee?

The question arose because of Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who pointed out the inescapable conclusion that TV shows are generally of higher quality than movies. He reached this conclusion by comparing the abysmal movie selection in the theaters with the stellar selection of dramatic television programming starting up their summer seasons. But this isn’t a recent problem. Going back years, maybe even decades, there’s certain expectations that arise when it comes to science fiction.

In the minds of most people, Sci-fi is just a shallow mess of cliches that lead to boobs and explosions. Literate people know differently but we’re not exactly Hollywood’s target audience.This isn’t entirely the fault of Hollywood execs, as movie goers still pay money to see movies like Transformers. As long as we’re letting the trash be the only example on the Big Screen, no one will give a rats ass about good sci-fi movies.

And until there’s a sci-fi show that doesn’t blow it’s wad of goodwill and potential on an ending that isn’t A)quasi-mystical, B) incoherent, or C) Both then no one will take it seriously on TV.

What we need to prove Sci-fi in a visual medium isn’t shallow is a science fictional equivalent of Mad Men or The Wire. Something that can get people talking and not be silly.

(I’d settle for the sci-fi equivalent of True Blood, a soap opera with T&A that has tight storytelling and good acting, but only as a stepping stone.)

As for what to do about good sci-fi movies, I’m out of ideas. Until the franchises and remakes die off, there’s really no hope for original sci-fi movie making. The inglorious demise of Moon proved that. What should have been the biggest Science Fiction film since Star Wars or Blade Runner was swallowed whole and shat out by the likes of Transformers and Avatar.

As Charlie Jane suggests, this may be the result of the cognitive demands of a mythos-heavy genre show:

[…] maybe the thing that’s making television more ambitious, and a denser experience for audiences, is harder to do with genre shows because it’s asking too much of viewers. We can handle genre elements within the predictable formula of the self-contained story — but if you’re going to tell us a long, twisty story where every installment just takes you further into the world of the characters, then that’s asking enough, right there. You can’t expect the average viewer to deal with long-running narrative complexity and grapple with aliens or time travel. Or maybe the model of the long-running serialized drama doesn’t work with genre elements, because the mythos becomes too confusing for the average person.

This sounds like a compelling argument and there may be a microgram of truth to it but I think there’s something more fundamental goign on here.

There’s nothing original anymore. This isn’t just a cynical complaint, it’s an operating principal for being a successful creative person.  Understand this principal and move on to creating an interesting well developed story that uses the tropes and hooks we’re familiar with to do something with a satisfying dramatic arc. Dollhouse wasn’t too original for it’s own good. It was dicked around with by the usual suspects at Fox. Had it been on Showtime or HBO it’d be starting it’s 3rd season now. But that’s neither here nor there.

Let’s use True Blood as an example: this is a story that uses familiar tropes (vampires and werewolves exist). But what sets it apart from Twilight is the characters and how the writers develop that concept into a compelling story. You could do a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon style retrofuturist sci-fi series, complete with ray guns and rockets with a contemporary spin on it and not only would people love it, they’d demand more. The catch is, the writing and characters. There’s no intrinsic difference between vampires and aliens or werewolves and robots. They’re just different flavored metaphors.

But to do a successful show with either, they have to be up to the standards of good TV writing we’ve come to expect. That was not the case with the recent Flash Gordon series but it very well could have been, if someone had been put in charge who had vision. Syfy cut corners though, and that’s the first step towards doom, regardless of medium.