Space opera’s TV struggles

Comparison of fictional space vessels
Starship comparisons

Like other genres, space opera has also taken a beating on television this year, with Doctor Who facing a minor backlash for being too scary and continuity-driven, Stargate Universe ending that long-running franchise, and Caprica getting canceled in favor of Blood and Chrome, another spinoff of the “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica (“BSG”).

I’m surprised that the producers of science fiction shows haven’t learned from the experiences of Star Trek and Babylon 5 (“B5”). Both Star Trek: the Next Generation and Stargate SG1 featured humanity’s best and brightest exploring a dangerous galaxy (not to mention the original 1960s Star Trek). Like B5, their sequels, Deep Space Nine and Atlantis, respectively, took place on remote space stations surrounded by war.

However, the next wave — Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5: Crusade and Legend of the Rangers, and Stargate Universe — all “darkened” the tone of their respective universes with postapocalyptic themes and wandering ships without the inspirational heroes and occasional humor of their predecessors.

The newer BSG also followed that trend in its melodramatic makeover of the 1970s series, while Andromeda, Firefly, and Farscape tried to balance heroes and antiheroes and were quickly canceled. (I am, however, cautiously optimistic about Doctor Who spinoff sequel miniseries Torchwood: Miracle Day, but Doctor Who and Torchwood are more about time travel and conspiracies than space opera.)

Like Star Trek: Enterprise, Caprica was a BSG prequel that filled in backstory that we either already knew or that wasn’t as engaging as the main exploration and conflicts. That’s not to say that each of these programs didn’t have compelling moments and good actors — they all did — but they didn’t hold onto audience goodwill or ratings with obviously rehashed plots or continuity conflicts.

On the other hand, Star Wars: Clone Wars shows that a space opera prequel can be done well. Initially dismissed as entertainment only for children who like George Lucas’ inferior movie prequels, the computer-animated Clone Wars has redeemed Episodes I through III with intertwined plot threads, actual character development, and blazing action in keeping with the tone of the entire saga. Sure, Season 3 had its share of heavy-handed political episodes, but they provided a context for the Sith’s schemes and Republic’s battles.

I know that human spaceflight hasn’t captured the public’s imagination as it did during the Cold War, but I think that the concepts of unity, exploration, and adventure are as valuable as ever. As a fan of serials from the 1930s Flash Gordon through Clone Wars, I hope that good space opera continues to find a place on TV. What do you think?

Coming soon: Animation and fantasy TV!

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2 thoughts on “Space opera’s TV struggles

  1. Andromeda was on for 5 seasons / 110 episodes.
    Farscape for 4 seasons / 88 episodes.

    So, not really, quickly cancelled.

    That misstatement, of course, invalidates this post, and quite possibly, your whole blog.

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    1. While it’s true that Farscape and Andromeda lasted several seasons each, neither ended particularly gracefully. Farscape needed TV movies to wrap up its storylines (as did Stargate SG1, the single longest-running U.S. TV space opera), and Andromeda suffered writer turnover. Both lasted longer than Stargate Universe or Caprica.

      In the present, the only representatives of traditional space opera are Star Wars: Clone Wars, some Doctor Who, and potentially Blood & Chrome, unless you know of other shows that I’ve missed. Clearly, just as the recent wave of live-action superhero shows appears to be on the wane, so too are supernatural dramas still more popular than space-based shows.

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