The Golden Season of Science Fiction Television
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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
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You can't take the sky from me.
Science fiction television is more often bad than good. Though there are no doubt many reasons for this, the top two seem to be budget restrictions (good sci fi tends to be expensive compared to, say, a contemporary drama or cop show) and Star Trek Syndrome (almost any space travel series seems to either clone the Galactic-Federation-explore-new-worlds model or go out of its way to be the exact opposite). For the most part, the successful sci fi shows in the last few years have done better following the "freakshow" model with (strange or unexplained) (phenomena or creatures) trying to (kill or eat) humans. A show about humans trying to find their place in the universe, and how that reflects back on humanity, has been hard to come by.

Enter the 2002 viewing season. Science fiction fans were blessed with an abundance of good television. Enterprise, Farscape, and Firefly all shared the airwaves, each exploring the human condition from a different angle. Alas, this renaissance in excellent sci fi came to an abrupt end in just a few short months. Two of the three shows were cancelled by the end of the year. But it's instructive to reflect on these shows and why they worked and failed in the hope that television will again pick up the gauntlet and produce excellent sci fi.


Enterprise has a Get Out of Jail Free card for Star Trek Syndrome in that it is, in fact, part of the ongoing Trek universe. This will prove to be its greatest asset as well as its greatest hurdle.

This series, the fifth Star Trek television series, abandons the notion of going further into the future and instead follows the first interstellar mission. Enterprise takes place in the comparatively near 22nd century, far enough away to allow for some technological advances without being so far out that there is a gizmo to solve everything. This makes sense, as the 23rd and 24th centuries were already pretty well travelled; continuing into the 25th century might seem a bit, well, speculative.

The crew of the NX-01 Enterprise is the usual forcibly diverse mix, including two aliens -- one and a half more than on the original series. The ship is the usual saucer-derived shape, though it's looking better than any Enterprise since 1701-A (1701-D never looked right to these eyes) and it's a more manageable size (1701-D was unbelievably huge, a fundamentally un-credible design). This ship and crew venture into deep space for the first time, under the watchful and disapproving eye of the Vulcans, who nurtured the humans to interstellar travel but feel the species is too young to go it alone. All in all it's a decent setup that would probably hold up for a couple of seasons even without the Trek brand. But Enterprise must contend with a divided audience, an audience trying to pull it in two different directions.

On one side of the divide are the Trekkies, the Trek purists who eat and breathe all things Trek, who cringe when a guest star mangles Klingon words. Though they are the franchise faithful -- those same types who only eat at Burger King, or only buy Chevys -- they also place a great burden on the series. They have predetermined notions of what this part of Treklore must be like, based on decades of Trek television and Trek novels that have created a timeline of sorts, or as they call it, a "canon". This canon has fairly precise dates for things such as the Romulan War, and many of these events conflict with what happens in Enterprise. The Trekkies get quite irate when the producers do something -- anything -- that contradicts the canon.

Part of the problem is that the canon already fails: since Trek first appeared nearly 40 years ago, things that were in the far future at that time have already (not) come to pass. The title villain in The Wrath of Khan, for example, is supposedly a key player of the Eugenics Wars of the mid-1990s. But the Keepers of the Canon seem quick to forgive canonical failures that are accidents of unfortunate, uncooperative reality, while remaining equally quick to condemn canonical deviations by the caretakers of the Trek universe even when it keeps a show interesting. We haven't yet heard the words "sanctimonious bastards" in public, though we expect they may have crossed the minds of some individuals close to the show.

On the other side of the divide are the non-Trekkies just looking for a good sci fi program. Many viewers (this author included) found Deep Space 9 and Voyager uninteresting and haven't really paid close attention to Trek since The Next Generation parked its oversized ship and floated home. These viewers don't mind Trek in principle, and enjoy seeing some of the allusions to the original series (though, it must be noted, Enterprise occasionally beats the viewer's head in with it, as if we won't get the joke), but have approached Enterprise with some trepidation that it will turn into another space soap opera filled with touchy-feely alien encounters, technobabble, and Starfleet procedure. This crowd thinks it's cool to see the Tholians kick a little Suliban butt, and aren't too worried about how this first encounter reflects on Kirk's web of troubles a generation later.

This dichotomy is the crux of the problem with being a Trek franchise. On the one hand, you want to win new viewers. On the other hand, doing so may require alienating some of your core constituency. Enterprise may have to take a more decisive stand than it has to date, as the ratings so far would suggest that it is doing a better job of alienating everyone than it is of winning one group over the other. This author, of course, is rooting for creativity over canon. Fortunately, the major advantage of being a Trek franchise is that the network will give the show much longer to develop and find an audience than it might with an all-new series (as we will see later). It must be kept in mind that the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation are nearly unwatchable. Enterprise is better than its forebear out of the gate, and we can hope that it too will improve as it ages.


This author discovered the Farscape scene pretty late. The Sci Fi Channel's campy programming held little appeal, so there just was no incentive to even check out the listings regularly, let alone bother trying any original programs.


"Crichton Kicks" happened to be on during an evening of channel-surfing, and it proved intriguing despite being extraordinarily confusing for the new viewer. Then, following a couple of weeks of forgetting to tune in, came "I Shrink Therefore I Am". That was it; after that, the Sci Fi Channel had won a new viewer whenever Farscape was on, and the DVD player soon hummed with back-episode rentals.

The premise of Farscape is simple enough, perhaps even a bit cliché: near-present-day space explorer, through a technical mishap he doesn't properly understand, finds himself in bizarre and unfamiliar surroundings. And yet, it is often the simplest premises that build the most compelling stories if the execution is handled properly.

In this particular case, the astronaut -- John Crichton -- finds himself instantly entangled in the politics of a faraway realm. His ship lands in the middle of a gunbattle between the local controlling military and a ship of escaped prisoners. This bevy of aliens, some who look human but aren't, some humanoid enough to be played by human actors, and a couple that are extremely well-done animatronics, provide the cultural and motivational divide that drive so many of the stories throughout the run of the series.

Farscape works because it refuses to acknowledge bounds: major characters suffer true misery, and some die (permanently); plotlines take the unlikely or well-worn and twist it in creative new directions; the SF tradition of avoiding contemporary references to other SF is entirely ignored. It asks its human lead to find his way through a universe where he is hopelessly alone, controversial among the indigenous species, and often in situations literally beyond his comprehension. Farscape shows huge levels of creativity in its storyline and production, matched by an excellent cast and crew able to execute these visions. Its role as a pivotal series in science fiction television is assured.

Unfortunately, its airing on the Sci Fi Channel proved less assured. In September 2002, the channel unceremoniously dumped Farscape, citing production costs that were far too high for the show's audience. The show completed its fourth season, but Sci Fi refused to bankroll a fifth, what was supposed to be the show's final season. Apparently, the lure of being able to rerun a complete series, instead of an incomplete series with no conclusion, for the rest of eternity was insufficiently compelling.

This is all the greater pity for the Sci Fi Channel, as it leaves the channel with no big draw. Its only other major series is a spinoff of a mediocre motion picture, and though it seems to garner good ratings in the short term, one has to question its long-term potential. Farscape was a timeless classic, certain to be a staple of the SF genre with the enduring relevance of even the original Star Trek. With no halo show to demonstrate its willingness to support excellent SF, the Sci Fi Channel is once again left with nothing but its usual campy programming, and viewers looking for the really good stuff will continue to ignore it.

Current reports suggest that Farscape may not be permanently dead: perhaps another network, such as UPN (which could stand to have another quality program in its grid), might pick it up, or it may move to a miniseries or even a motion picture. One can only hope that someone else sees the quality of this show who is in a position to pick up the torch. In the meantime, one of contemporary science fiction television's guiding lights has been snuffed by shortsighted cost-cutters.

Hm. Kinda like some other show that once aired on NBC.


Firefly never stood a chance. The formula was all wrong.

Take an intelligent, cerebral sci-fi show (requires time to build an audience) with an interesting Western twist (takes longer to win over the skeptics) produced by the same guy who also produces a wildly popular if somewhat less cerebral vampire show (setting high expectations for immediate results) and air it on a network desperate for some sign of life in their ratings (therefore possessing a low tolerance for risk).

Is it any wonder FOX cancelled Firefly after less than a dozen episodes? How could it not? What were they even doing with a program like this anyway?

To recap, Firefly took place several centuries in the future, after Earth was "used up" and humanity looked outward for habitation. Humans evidently found other star systems with several habitable worlds, and established an alliance of human planets. As humans are wont to do, civil war broke out and the alliance held together by crushing worlds in opposition to it. Firefly started soon after the war ended, following the efforts of a couple of former rebels trying to find a new life in the new galactic order. They assembled a ragtag crew and took passengers to pay the rent, then went looking for work in the fringe worlds using an old cargo ship, Firefly-class of course, called the Serenity. These outer worlds lacked the high-tech amenities of the core worlds; many people eked out a 19th-century life with only occasional reminders of the larger galaxy around them. Far from being commonplace, space travel amongst the outer worlds was rare and sought after. Serenity's cargo could be anything from the latest medical supplies to cattle. And their trade wasn't always perfectly on the level.

Even though many science fiction programs and movies are little more than Westerns with shiny steel sets, computer-generated lasers, and makeup-artist aliens, it was quite a bold step to blatantly mix the two genres. This author was among the skeptics when the premise first came out, but watching a couple of the early shows demonstrated that it worked well. Using this premise handily resolved the technobabble problem endemic to futuristic sci fi, because in the life of the Serenity crew there often was no techno to babble about. Yet, since they were still space travellers (if low-tech travellers), there was still room for the occasional show about the oddballs they met in deep space.

Firefly twisted the usual SF mantra -- we are not alone in space -- by saying, in essence, "huh, turns out we are alone in space." There was not one alien or half-alien on the show. This neatly sidestepped the often-pivotal question of how humans stack up against other species, allowing the show instead to focus on how humans survive in difficult new environments. It is an interesting paradigm for our own present-day world, where some enjoy the greatest technological advances of the human race while others only a few hours away by airplane essentially still live in the stone age.

Having several of the major characters on board as paying clients rather than crew made it possible to have true moral conflict without the added burden of insubordination. The dynamics were interesting, with individuals on board for different reasons, and with vastly different expectations for the journey. Highly credible disputes over the perspective and resolution of a difficult situation made it possible for Firefly to really examine issues and, perhaps, not always come up with a clear answer -- just like life.

Firefly had what it needed to be a successful show: smart scripting, good actors, an interesting premise. It was in line to inherit a huge, hungry sci fi audience, as it hit the scene just as Farscape was being killed by the Sci Fi Channel and Enterprise floundered in its search for its place in the Trek universe. All it needed was more time to build a reputation and a following, to allow the season to be re-run for latecomers to catch up and get hooked. But half a season of intermittent airing on FOX? Firefly never really had a chance to get off the ground.