TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 6

High Point Number 6: Fringe Survives the Friday Night Death Slot

For the past three years Fringe has delivered some of the most interesting sci-fi on TV. So fans of the show learned late in 2010 that the series was being moved to Friday night, into what has become known more and more as The Death Slot (a designation so widely used that it has its own Wikipedia article).

For the past two decades Friday night on Fox TV has been the place where shows go to die. The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., Brimstone, Dark Angel, Firefly, Tru Calling,Wonderfalls, M.A.N.T.I.S., Sliders, and Dollhouse were all cancelled after failing to attract a significant audience on Friday night. More disturbingly, Fox has had a tendency to shift shows it intends to cancel into the slot, including such shows nearing their end as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Bernie Mac Show.

At one time Friday and Saturday evenings were major nights for television viewers. But this began changing due to significant changes in American TV viewing habits. The development of cable television came first, which resulted in an ongoing fragmentation of the viewing audience, a trend that not only continues, but has accelerated as the Internet provides more alternatives to cable. Many younger viewers, in fact, eschew cable TV entirely, relying instead on streaming content or downloading from Torrent websites.

But what redefined TV use on Fridays and Saturdays even more was first the invention of the VCR and then its replacement by the DVD player. Complicating TV programming further is the fact that many of the younger viewers tend to go out on Fridays, thus depriving the networks of the very ones they prefer to target in their advertising. DVRs mean that no one has to miss a show.

Most networks have taken either of three approaches to Friday nights (Saturdays they have simply given up on).

First, some target older audiences. CBS has had considerable success with this approach, while shows like Monk on the USA Network. Even though they are not able to charge as much in advertising because the audiences are outside the coveted younger age bracket, they at least are able to attract considerable niche advertising.

Second, some have opted for cheap reality television. Most of the networks have toyed with food programs, nanny shows, or other formats to try and retain some audience share.

The third approach has been to target the nerds and geeks. I suppose the assumption is that fans of sci-fi and fantasy have no lives apart from their weekly meetings to play Magic: The Gathering, or perhaps it’s the memory of the massive success The X-Files enjoyed on the night in its early seasons.

Whatever the reason, Friday night has become the Night of the Nerd. The two networks that have most consistently tried to schedule sci-fiand fantasy on Fridays have been Fox and SyFy, though the latter has more recently shifted its post-Battlestar Galactica shows to other evenings. Two years ago the CW shifted Smallville to Friday, which did surprisingly well, encouraging them to pair it this past season with Supernatural this past season. With Smallville having finished its decade-long run, the Winchester Brothers will be paired this coming season with Nikita. NBC is joining the rush towards Friday night sci-fi/fantasy programing by pairing its nerd espionage series Chuck with the new fantasy series Grimm.

Nonetheless, despite all these signs that several networks see Friday night as the evening to vie for the nerd niche audience, Fringe fans were understandably nervous. Too many Fox series had, after all, been moved to Fridays as a preliminary to cancellation. Even as part of the weeknight schedule Fringe had not been a ratings beast, especially when compared to Fox’s other scripted shows like 24, Glee, or even House and Bones, not to mention American Idol.

Fans of the show felt that there was a lot at stake for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. During the past year a string of genre shows either were cancelled or ended intentionally, including Caprica, Smallville, Stargate Universe, and the two superhero disappointments No Ordinary Family and The Cape. There was also widespread disappointment that several TV pilots did not make it to series, with networks declining to pick up the magical detective series 17th Precinct, the controversial Wonder Woman, and the highly anticipated Locke and Key. Of the sci-fi series remaining on the air, Fringe probably is the most critically acclaimed. A few new shows are scheduled for next year. Alphas, about a government agency manned with individuals with superpowers, has already started on SyFy, and although extremely derivative, nonetheless has enough style to be a welcome new addition, unlike the poorly conceived alien invasion series Falling Skies. The teen-oriented witchcraft series The Secret Circle debuts on the CW, while Powers is one of the more promising series Fox is developing.

Fringe is definitely a show that deserves to survive. It has the marks of a great series: fine characters, strong writing, and its own style. In fairness, it’s no greater than several of the other shows that Fox cancelled after being scheduled on Friday. But perhaps after all this time the network has decided that it’s spitting into the wind, that no show is going to get better numbers than Fringe. I do suspect that the relative success of Fringe and perhaps even more the achievement of Smallville in holding its numbers upon moving to the night may be partly behind NBC’s scheduling two shows on the evening.

But not all the news for nerds is good. Just consider…

Low Point Number 6: The Cancellation of ‘Caprica’ and ‘Stargate Universe’ and the Death of Space Opera

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.

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