and I don’t mean the books
Consider our media landscape as tides under pale moonlight, ebbing and flowing between trends that capture our collective imagination. The early 2000s were dominated by fantasy heavyweights like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia, the success of each paving the way for more injections of that unbound genre. Producers looking for the next big thing paid attention, and this wave soon washed over our televisions, producing shows like Merlin, Camelot, Legend of the Seeker, Spartacus, and the marginally successful Game of Thrones.
But now that tide is changing again, swinging back towards another genre commonly left to high school library shelves. The last year in cinema has been dominated by science fiction- The Last Days on Mars, Europa Report, Prometheus, Ender’s Game, Elysium, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gravity, and recently Interstellar, are all part of a rising tide in space opera appreciation.
And in 2015, television will be catching up.
That isn’t to say science fiction is a stranger to the boobtube. The New Golden Age of Television has produced a number of quality science fiction programs dating back to the X-Files and swinging in to more recent efforts like Revolution, The 100, and Falling Skies, among others. Nor is the space opera, specifically, completely uncharted territory. Star Trek, in one form or another, has always been a sort of background radiation in TV Land. And of course Firefly, Farscape, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica, among others, have all found varying levels of success. The space opera has always been a risk for producers and they’ve been the kind of shows which eventually whittle down to a few diehard loyalist fans who keep the spirit going.
But, and lets put the whole Star Trek phenomena aside for a moment, very few recent attempts have been able to reach that Game of Thrones-level of mass media consumption. The sort of nerve-striking that vibrates throughout pop culture and crashes through the membrane into that mysterious and vaguely definable realm of the “mainstream”. But coming next year and no doubt for years to come, more and more networks are gambling on space operas to bring in the big bucks and set themselves apart from the flock, all in the hopes of capturing even an iota of that Game of Thrones appeal.
So here we have the main contenders fighting for big space on the small screen.
The Big Guns-
Set in a distant future where humanity has expanded across the galaxy, Foundation initially follows the story of mathematician Hari Seldon, who discovers a branch of mathematics which can predict the large events and movements of history. With it he predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire and an ensuing dark age of 30 thousand years. In an attempt to salvage what he can, he creates two foundations encompassing the best and brightest of humanity to preserve their vast amounts of knowledge and hopefully lessen the dark age to “one millennium”. Written by Isaac Asimov, this seven book, thirty year spanning series, which won the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966 beating out that modern fantasy icon Lord of the Rings, is the next step up in scale from Game of Thrones, trading in simple descriptors like “large” or “vast” for “epic” and “mind-bending”. The universe of Foundation deals not with humans but humanity, not houses but empires. For a network that has at times struggled to compact a fantasy series down to size, going for something even bigger might seem like a fool’s quest, the moment when HBO finally bites off more than it can chew. But it’s not taking this adaptation lightly and has signed on Interstellar writer Jonah Nolan to write and produce the series. Nolan is an admitted mega-fan of the books which could help his chances at producing a quality show, but he may only be retracing the steps of the prolific sci-fi author. Asimov himself admitted, upon re-reading his work, that:
“I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. All three volumes, all the nearly quarter of a million words, consisted of thoughts and of conversation. No action. No physical suspense.”
The Foundation series is one built on ideas and it’s not afraid to ask the big questions, but this could be the death-knell for producing tight, forward-moving seasons that capture audiences’ attention. The Nolan films (and Jonah’s pet tv project, Person of Interest) rely on a certain blend of headiness mixed with fast action, so this script will likely require more than a few treatments before finally beaming into our homes. Remember, bigger is not always better.
Syfy’s The Expanse series, Childhood’s End, Ascension, & Dark Matter
Something must have glitched in the rusting brain of the AI running Syfy’s corporate compound, because it looks like they’re getting back into actual space stuff. The channel, which has been riding high in recent years on the “success” of their original, low budget movies like Sharknado, Sharktopus, and Ghost Shark, recently picked up a slew of original programming, with at least three big space operas hidden among the list. Syfy’s sci-fi blitz might be an effort at throwing everything at a wall and seeing what sticks, but if it means we get to see some half-way decent adaptations on the screen, who’s to judge? Their Battlestar Galactica remake produced one of the most compelling and fully realized space operas on television to date and if they can reproduce even a bit of the magic of that show, they’ll have some real winners on their hand.
First up is The Expanse series, a trilogy of books by writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pen-name James S.A. Corey. The series rocketed up in popularity as the books trickled out and was nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction. It’s half a detective procedural, half military thriller, based around uncovering a conspiracy related to the discovery of alien life. There have been many generous comparisons of the series to Game of Thrones and Abraham himself has previously worked under George R. R. Martin as a personal assistant, earning him a midas touch as far as some literary types are concerned. All preliminary reporting on the Expanse’s adaptation sounds good. It’ll start with a ten-episode season based on the first book, with a script by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, whose previous work includes Children of Men and Iron Man, and Syfy’s president is on the record calling this the network’s “most ambitious series to date”. So you can’t imagine they’ll be skimping too much on the CGI budget. The Expanse series covers a wide cast and will require some impressive sets, but it sounds like they’re up to the task. Hopefully that extra Sharknado 2 cash will do them some good.
Ascension, Syfy’s newest offering, has already started airing to mixed reviews. Chalk that up to the show just getting the ball rolling. The premise is intriguing however, a sort of alternate history, Mad Men in space. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy sends out a generation ship of 350 volunteers to colonize a nearby planet. After fifty years of travel, a murder on the ship sets off a series of events that has people questioning why they’re really out there. Personally I haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet but the vibe I’m getting here is a cross between Battlestar Galactica (Tricia Helfer stars) and early Babylon 5. Only the six episode miniseries exists right now, with the possibility of opening up into a full-fledged series. The rub for that, however, may be viewer interest. With the miniseries already running its course as of December 17th, it will need something extra to boost its visibility and secure that first season. Unfortunately, I had to go out of the way to find out anything about it, and it’s not a show appearing on many year-in-review lists. With so little word-of-mouth going around, it could easily pass by without picking up that critical mass needed to keep it going. Time will tell, but if you need a show to tide you over until some of these others are released, this might be the one to check out.
Next is another remake pulled from the annals of sci-fi’s Golden Age. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End has been greenlighted for a six-hour mini-series. The book was Clarke’s first successful novel and one of his best, but was only nominated for the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2004. The story depicts the arrival of an alien species known as the Overlords, and their intervention in human politics to bring about a lasting peace. But of course, not all is as it seems, and the Overlords have their own secret agenda. Charles Dance, another Game of Thrones connection, has been signed on to play one of the principle Overlord characters. Not quite a space opera, but it has all the trappings of classical sci-fi conventions that it’s hard to ignore. Should make for an interesting tidbit of a series, if they keep it to just the six-hours and not try to expand it out further.
The last in Syfy’s pick-ups is the adaptation of a little known comic series called Dark Matter. Syfy has ordered thirteen episodes of the action-filled space series written by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie. The two originally intended the comic to be a TV show but settled with publication through Dark Horse instead. They both have experience writing for various Stargate shows, so are no strangers to sci-fi TV scene. The comic follows a six man crew who wake up from stasis without any idea who they are or where they’re going. They soon come along a planet that needs their help and decide to pitch in. Shooting and explosions ensue. Hard to say how this one will turn out. From the sounds of things it could be stretched into a multi-season show, jumping off from where the comic ends into new material made by Mallozzi and Mullie, but we’ll have to see how it pans out with tv viewers.
The Rightful Heir-
SpikeTV’s Red Mars
It’s been the little dirty secret among readers of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy that if Game of Thrones could get its own show, then Robinson’s terraforming epic couldn’t be too far behind. The series, published from 1993 to 1996, follows a cast of characters who arrive from an overpopulated Earth to colonize Mars, and all the complications that arise therein. Robinson’s series was talking about the practical difficulties of managing the red planet well before Curiosity was a gleam in NASA’s eye or Musk was throwing off the shackles of old terra. With Mars such a hot topic in mainstream culture now, SpikeTV would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to cash in while also delivering some quality tv for once. The series, which starts with Red Mars and moves into its sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars, has bounced around from one producer to the next. Originally a James Cameron and Martha Coolidge project, it passed over to the Syfy channel (tough luck guys) before slipping over to AMC and finally resting with SpikeTV. Vince Gerardis, previously a co-executive producer on Game of Thrones, is stepping up to the plate for this one and looking to deliver some big results. If there’s any series on this list that could really break through and become the next big sci-fi hit, it’s this one. It has a compelling cast, great drama, love triangles, sex, backstabbing, revolutions, and massive game-changing events that could show off some impressive visuals for TV. The only cause for concern is the network itself. Is SpikeTV ready to compete in the big leagues? Will they have a budget ample enough to render Mars’ desolate landscape, the practicality of the colonist habitats, or the various trips to boreholes, canyons, and Olympus Mons that make series what it is? God, I really really really hope so. Fingers crossed on this one.
The Dark Horse-
Originally announced in 2012, the modern remake of the classic 1970s series, Space 1999, has been quiet as of late. The last update we heard was in January, when executive producer Jace Hall, who also worked on the V remake and is currently at HDFilms’, let us know that things were slow-going, but still going. The original series featured the crew of Moonbase Alpha whose lunar home is sent plunging through the depths of space after an explosion knocks it out of Earth’s orbit. The premise was ridiculous, no doubt apocalyptic for the Earth they left behind, but it provided a reason for the cast to keep running into new types of aliens and civilizations without having to worry about the logistics of a spaceship. It also put miniatures to extensive use and likely inspired some techniques later used in the Star Wars series. To its credit, the remake is straying from the original premise, and is even trying to avoid the sort of grim and gritty reboot we saw with Battlestar.
Space: 2099 hopes to re-kindle and remind fans of those memories of a show from 35 years ago, but more importantly help bring back to all science fiction fans that sense of awe, fear and incredible spectacle that is the unknown, unexplored universe. It is important that we endeavor to bring something new and exciting to the table.
That “new and exciting” bit could be what’s holding things up. Scripts are still being written and Hall still hasn’t landed a network willing to take a risk with the show. There’s still a lot of holes to fill and questions to answer for this remake. Who’s staring? What will the effects budget be like? What territory will it explore? But all this could start falling into place in the next year. There’s clearly passion for the old series behind this so it will definitely be one to watch. Even at this early stage, it does have one good thing going for it- its tagline,
“Man’s giant leap was just a stumble in the dark…”