The New Frontier of Science Fiction

About a month ago, it was announced that Sci Fi Channel (owned by NBC Universal) would be rebranded as “Syfy.” I’ve been letting this sink in. I understand from a marketing perspective why NBC would make such a change: Sci Fi has some negative connotations with it. They want to distance themselves from the basement geek and encapsulate a wider audience. They’ve already been achieving this by taking on some obviously-not Sci Fi programming such as wrestling. Sci Fi obviously competes with Spike TV who shares a nearly identical demographic. They also have new programming of genre that is only partially sci fi, such as LOST. But I’ve been trying to figure out that if this what this change represents is positive or negative to the concept of science fiction. As a long time viewer of the channel, should I be offended? Do I think more good or bad will come of it?

In Part 2, I take an in-depth look at the new Star Trek (2009) movie. It obviously represents an important part of the evolution of science fiction. It’s an exciting time for the prospects of both new show concepts and the relaunching of old, familiar ones. But, as always, I have my doubts.

Part I: The New Face of Sci Fi

Sci Fi Channel Rebranding

President of Sci Fi, David Howe, noted that, “By changing the name to Syfy, which remains phonetically identical, the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider range of current and future imagination-based entertainment beyond just the traditional sci fi genre, including fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure.”

My knee-jerk reaction to this change was disdain. It’s kind of offensive that after all these years of holding onto the Sci Fi brand that they’d just drop it and try to be something else. It feels like they’re abandoning their core audience in favor of larger numbers. But the more I considered it, the more it makes sense and the less it seems repulsive. They are actually in-tune with genre and its evolution. Now, I’m not trying to give NBC/Sci Fi some free marketing copy; in fact, I don’t really care about the channel that much because I watch most of my media on my computer. I just think that the change parallels with the genre’s change as a whole.

Sci Fi Channel just enjoyed its most watched year ever. This is probably attributed to the addition some of this less “geeky” programming. I am sure the rebranding is just the focal point of it all: a complete relaunch to grab media attention as well as propel the entire company toward its new direction. Now, as an avid fan of science fiction, I have a lot of mixed feelings about this transition. It’s not mixed feelings toward the Sci Fi Channel specifically as much as it is about how sci fi is transforming entirely. Overall, my feelings are positive, though.

I think this all represents a long development of sci fi over the past decade. In 1999, Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 had just ended. These two shows undoubtedly stuck to the then-current science fiction television paradigm initiated Star Trek: The Next Generation. But B5 and DS9 also contained more dark and consistent drama, as well as overarching plot that spanned the entire series. Sound familiar? This trend of having season-long plotlines and episodes that bleed together is something that countless shows do today including LOST, Heroes, 24, Prison Break, and of course, Battlestar Galactica.

Another crucial factor is realism. Fans of science fiction don’t necessarily mind the quirkiness of past shows. In fact, they often embrace it and joke about it. But there are many fans who do get irked about more than the questionable “science” in sci fi. But more importantly, the believability of sci fi tends to waver when this realism is put in jeopardy. Ronald D. Moore, who created the reivisioned Battlestar Galactica, wrote and produced for Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Voyager. About Star Trek: Voyager, Moore had this to say in a January 2000 Cinescape interview:

“The premise has a lot of possibilities. Before it aired, I was at a convention in Pasadena, and Sternbach and Okuda were on stage, and they were answering questions from the audience about the new ship. It was all very technical, and they were talking about the fact that in the premise this ship was going to have problems. It wasn’t going to have unlimited sources of energy. It wasn’t going to have all the doodads of the Enterprise. It was going to be rougher, fending for themselves more, having to trade to get supplies that they want. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at all, and it’s a lie to the audience. I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. Voyager is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spic-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? That kind of bullshitting the audience I think takes its toll. At some point the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn’t act like this.”

Moore  achieved this goal of sci fi realism with “Battlestar Galactica.” In Season 1 especially, it really felt like we were along for the ride with a ragtag fleet trying to survive in space. I think the show’s downfall in quality (Season 3 and onward) can be attributed somewhat to Moore and the other Battlestar writers moving away from the show’s focus on realism and becoming entrenched too much in the show’s complex mythology. We no longer felt like we were along for the ride; it felt more like we were mice being led through a maze with a piece of cheese that we could never eat. And when we finally got to that cheese, it tasted oh-so bittersweet. Similar analyses are being drawn to LOST, although I haven’t given up hope there. Indeed, however, it is experiencing the exact same problem: it went from a show about people trying to survive on an island, to being completely wrapped up in mystery. It wasn’t only the mainstream audience feeling alienated, either.

Caprica

It’s a delicate balance. Ronald D. Moore’s next project following Battlestar Galactica, entitled Caprica is a prequel to the series that focuses even more on character drama. The pilot for Caprica presented us with a more subdued, less intense science fiction show. Perhaps Moore has some regret about the last few seasons of Battlestar and hopes to return to a more visceral character drama with Caprica. The show has promise, but I’m wary.

While Ronald D. More has stressed intense drama and realism, J.J. Abrams has focused on enrapturing mainstream audiences. This is where the new Star Trek movie comes in. I have a post that specifically addresses my reactions to the Star Trek franchise reboot in more detail. But in the context of this post, I’m quite ambivalent about what this means for sci fi. The rest of my thoughts regarding the direction of sci fi will be followed up in Part 2, where I take a more in-depth look at the once flagship of science fiction television: Star Trek.

Part II: The Next Next Generation

startrek

How did we get here?

Star Trek, the once thriving and seemingly indomitable sci fi franchise, has been a joke for years. Now, I don’t mean the joke of the stereotyped geek audience of unkempt basement dwellers. Star Trek had  become a joke of a franchise that some thought might not even revive. That’s where J.J. Abrams comes in to save the day. But is it what Trek fans wanted? Is this where we want Star Trek to be? It’s out of the basement and into the ballpark of cool. Is it simply arrogant of sci fi fans to dismiss its mainstream success as betrayal, or is it truly something good?

I’ve been my reserving my thoughts regarding the Star Trek (2009) movie until it actually came out and I watched it. There’s no doubt that Star Trek is a great movie. It is a superb work of entertainment. It’s already being hailed as the summer box office hit of the year. But was it a great sci fi movie? I certainly didn’t feel like it. It felt more like an action movie. That’s not bad by any means–I like action movies when they’re well done. But I’m left feeling quite ambivalent in the context of science fiction. The movie is more in the direction of Star Wars, which represents a more traditional “good vs. evil” hero story. I’m actually not much of a Star Wars fan for this reason. Star Trek’s (2009) plot similarly feels a little flat. The character drama and story is predictable. It redeems itself with great direction and amazing special effects.

I didn’t feel like I was on the edge of my seat. The drama just wasn’t there for me. But that would fine if it at least sparked my imagination, as all great science fiction should. But that didn’t even happen. Maybe I’m a little weird because my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t some of the epic season finales like “The Best of Both Worlds” but are in fact the more absurd episodes such as Timescape, Schisms, Cause and Effect, Emergence, Frame of Mind, and Where No One Has Gone Before. I also loved thought-provoking episodes such as The Measure of a Man and Justice. These episodes, even when they were slow-paced, showed me things that made my imagination run wild. Star Trek (2009) made my visual perception run wild, but that’s about it.

I know I’m asking for too much in a single movie. There was no way for J.J. Abrams to appease every kind of sci fi fan out there, let alone all mainstream audiences. Paramount enlisted him with the task of reinvisioning the franchise, making it feel fresh and obtaining a new audience. This goal was undoubtedly achieved with the grace and excellence we’ve come to know from Abrams. Not only has the series been reignited, it’s even been riddened of much of the geek stigma. Despite the fact that I didn’t love the movie as much as I hoped I would, I’m very excited for the franchise as a whole. There’s now a great chance for a new Star Trek series. I know a new series will have room for many different kinds of episodes and larger, more epic character drama. I’m excited about the new audience because I do think sci fi can and should be enjoyed by more people. I just hope it doesn’t lose its depth in the process.

I’m willing to overlook the whole timeline divergence of Star Trek (2009) because it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in Star Trek as a whole. However, I do hope in any future series they return to the “normal” timeline and don’t revisit this alternate version. I’m not the kind of person dismiss the movie because of small little details that aren’t consistent with Star Trek mythos. I’m more concerned with the big picture.  I just want to see the evolution of the Trek universe after the events of “Nemesis”. I’m tired of prequels like the movie and “Enterprise.” Oh, Enterprise. I haven’t mentioned that yet.

The failed series “Enterprise” was actually an attempt at a correct step forward. The blunder, in my opinion, was bad writing. But the direction style showed us a Star Trek that tried to be more real and modern than its predecessors. In a sense, it was what they wanted to do with the new movie. They wanted to get a new audience and make Star Trek hip and fresh. They failed because the show ended up somewhere in-between. It felt a little too fake. Now, I actually liked Enterprise to some extent and thought the show had its ups and downs. Seasons 2 and 3 were pretty good, actually. But the mini-arcs the writers tried to do in Season 4 led to the show’s quick demise. These story arcs failed because they weren’t interesting enough to prolong for 5 or 6 episodes straight. There were single episodes of The Next Generation that were more interesting and epic–and those were wrapped up in a succinct 45 minutes. If an episode was going to be a 2-parter, it had better be damned good. That was the genius of The Next Generation’s writing. They could cram so much into one episode. That is what good writing is.

So, here we are. Star Trek (2009) is right on the cusp of a new generation of sci fi. This includes Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Caprica, and even LOST. I think longtime science fiction fans are experiencing a lot of mixed feelings about this evolution. I think we are content with where Battlestar went, but I’m not so sure about Star Trek (2009). My primary concern is the loss of depth. I don’t just want intense action in space with phasers and time travel and explosions. I want mystery. I want ethical dilemmas. I want intergalactic diplomacy. I want my mind blown by things I never imagined. I need depth.

However… I also welcome warmly the greater realism and intense drama that has come from the new evolution of science fiction. The corniness of much past sci fi is something I’ve never personally understood or thought was necessary. I welcome new audiences. But I don’t want the things that originally got me into science fiction to go away. That’s what I’m afraid of. In the end, though, I do think the frontier of science fiction looks more bright than bleak.

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Posted on May 9, 2009, in Film and TV and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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