When SyFy cancelled Caprica and Stargate Universe, television was left without any space operas for the first time since 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation commenced a quarter century obsession with space ships, aliens, and other worlds. “Space Opera” was originally a pejorative used to describe space stories that focused on the melodramatic and fantastical adventures of individual space heroes. But it has since lost its negative connotations and some of the most respected sci-fi writers in the world today—such as Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton, and Stephen Baxter—write ongoing space operas. And the term has been applied to any of the TV sci-fi series set in outer space, including all those influenced by Star Trek and Star Wars.
The next 20 years saw an explosion of space operas, including Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Farscape, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica, along with several other lesser efforts. There was also one outer space comedy that attracted a cult audience, the BBC series Red Dwarf, which may have some additional episodes to be broadcast sometime in 2013.
The cancellation of Caprica was disappointing but not unexpected. Although one of the most intelligent, best-written shows on TV, with an outstanding cast and a brilliant vision, it was a concept I loved—essentially Dynasty meets Terminator on another planet—but I never kidded myself that it would attract anything beyond a very limited audience. Most fans of outer space sci-fi want explosions and action, while this had virtually none.
Furthermore, it focused almost exclusively on relationships, something that embarrasses and discomfits many sci-fi fans. Stargate Universe was plagued by an effort to mimic the look and atmosphere of Battlestar Galactica without either a cast of similar quality or its strong writing. Narratively it only became interesting towards the end of its second season, after its cancellation had already been announced.
There is, of course, one exception: Doctor Who. Many, though not all, of its episodes take place on other worlds and a few on spaceships, while he encounters more than a few aliens. But the first version of the series began in 1963, three years before the original Star Trek. Because of its age and long tradition, it has not been subject to the developments in space opera the past two decades. It will continue, though tentatively it appears that after the second half of Season Six is shown this fall, there will be no more Doctor Who until 2013, except for the annual holiday specials. It inspired a spin off, Torchwood, which is part of a genre of shows dealing with alien invasion or presence, like V., The 4400, Roswell, The X-Files, and Invasion.
What happened? Why did space opera disappear so quickly from our screens after a couple of decades of success? There are, I believe, two reasons.
First, outer space sci-fi was going stale. Most shows were beginning to repeat themselves. The aliens, especially, were looking sillier and sillier, as makeup artists exhausted the possibilities of gluing latex to the faces of regular human beings. Farscape managed perhaps the last interesting aliens on TV, partly by shifting the story away from humans discovering aliens—which had been the standard in all previous sci-fi—to aliens discovering the only human on the show. Most sci-fi series privilege the humans, making the aliens truly “Other.” But on Farscape the lone human, John Crichton, finds himself pulled through a wormhole to the other side of the universe, where he is the “Other”, the outsider.
The next great sci-fi series set in space, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, featured no aliens at all. It was the beginning of the end of aliens on TV and a new embrace of realism. Firefly dispensed with faster than light travel, while none of the spaceships featured phasers, photon torpedoes, or shields (meaning that you never would hear the expression “Shields down to twenty-two percent, Captain”). The show also declined to develop stories in which fantastic and extraordinarily imaginative scientific solutions had to be devised, what I like to call “Magic Science”.
While all of the Star Trek series have relied on Magic Science, the franchise that has employed it most frequently is Stargate. Both SG-1 and Atlantis employed alternative reality arcs more frequently than any show runners ought to feel comfortable with, while SG-1 saw the main characters physically duplicated so many times that their various versions could have filled a convention hall. Such narrative conceits would have been unthinkable on Firefly.
The second reason that space opera has died off is Battlestar Galactica. The series was a re-light of the dreadful 1978 cheesefest by the same name, one of the most hated series by sci-fi writers and critics in the history of the genre (Peter Nicholls wrote of the original Battlestar Galactica in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Perhaps the least likable of all TV sci-fi in its ineptness, its cynicism, its sentimentality and its contempt for and ignorance of science”). When Universal asked David Eick to oversee a new version of the series, he recruited a veteran of the Star Trek franchise, Ronald D. Moore, to be his fellow executive producer and chief creative force.
Moore agreed to do so on condition that he be allowed to reinvent TV sci-fi, which is what he proceeded to do. He banned all aliens from the show, insisted on a realistic physics (excepting only the Faster Than Light drive that made travel across the universe possible), and abjured the pristine, completely antiseptic look of other spaceships. Battlestar Galactica would be gritty, dark, and dingy. Without shields, Galactica was a massive hunk of flying steel, designed to withstand small nuclear weapons.
The difference between Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek can be seen in their doors. On any of the Star Trek series, the doors would swoosh open in anticipation of anyone entering, while on Battlestar Galactica the doors—which were taken off a mothballed submarine—were massive and dense, capable of withstanding decompression in space, and had to be muscled open or shut.
Battlestar Galactica was so compelling, so vivid, that it instantly redefined what was possible in TV sci-fi. Aliens were out and so was the kind of glossy optimism that drove Star Trek. Except for Stargate Atlantis, which was already in development when Battlestar Galactica debuted, no subsequent space opera has been developed without consideration of the way Battlestar Galactica changed what was possible on any show set in space.
The best series set in space in that timeframe, Defying Gravity, can be seen as an exploration into the limits of what is possible in space opera in the wake of Battlestar Galactica. It did feature a single alien, but the show was focused far more on realism and human relations than on the kinds of themes found on TV sci-fi prior to Battlestar Galactica.
Stargate Universe owes far more to Battlestar Galactica than it does to either of the previous Stargate series. The series isn’t like Battlestar Galactica so much as a vague impersonation of its easier to imitate characteristics: the darkness, the grittiness, the use of handheld cameras. It still had aliens due to its connection with the previous two series, but it minimized their place in the narrative, keeping them offstage as much as possible.
Battlestar Galactica arrived at a time when space opera had reached a dead end, and then redefined what was possible in TV sci-fi. Unfortunately, so far no one else has discovered what is possible except to imitate Battlestar Galactica. Stargate Universe discovered that it isn’t sufficient merely to ape the look of the earlier series. But primarily Battlestar Galactica’s influence on space opera has been negative, by closing off all previous avenues for series to proceed. I say this as a one who would rank Battlestar Galactica as one of my two all time favorite series(the other being Buffy the Vampire Slayer). What Battlestar Galactica did was extraordinary, and in my opinion it’s the finest space opera ever. My concern is that it describes a dead end for the genre, rather than a gateway.
There’s a Battlestar Galactica prequel currently under development, entitled Galactica: Blood and Chrome. It promises to have a great deal more action than Caprica, but because it partakes of the same universe, it’s unlikely to provide the answer to the question of where space opera goes, if it can go anywhere. We may learn that Ronald D. Moore not only reinvented space opera, but made its continuance impossible.