Even just a few years ago, it seemed like science fiction was an endangered species on television. But now, there’s a new wave of smart, ambitious science fiction coming to the small screen. And meanwhile, a lot of original SF has flopped at the movies.
The Daily Beast talked to a lot of people in science fiction for a big feature the other day, and the consensus seemed to be that original, non-franchise SF is struggling at the movies. But there’s a new chance for it to do well on television, particularly cable and digital.
The article’s main points seem to be that movies increasingly demand big well known franchises, which is why Jurassic World is a mega-hit but great films like Edge of Tomorrow and Ex Machina barely make a dent. Movies are all about “remakes, sequels, recycled TV shows, comic books, YA novels that are bestsellers,” says Steven Gaydos with Variety. And with movies depending more and more on the international market, movies can’t do well if they depend on the hard-to-translate “verbal wit” or subtle dialogue, versus huge spectacle and explosions.
Meanwhile, according to the people interviewed, television now can do spectacle on a TV budget, thanks to advances in CG animation. Plus there’s more space for world-building on TV than in movies, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the characters and their backstories.
The Daily Beast article quotes Bill McGoldrick, Syfy’s head of original programming, as saying that TV has changed for the better in the past decade or so:
TV in general allows for much more challenging material than it ever has before... The proliferation of serialized TV, that doesn’t play by the rules it used to; all the old rules got blown out of the water. Battlestar Galactica became an example of that. Or it’s the Breaking Bads, the Mad Mens, The Sopranos.
And Gale Ann Hurd, who produces The Walking Dead and the upcoming Syfy series Hunters, says that television is increasingly the home of character-driven storytelling:
Television, especially in the cable world, is focused on telling character-driven stories that unfold slowly. As producers we are able to peel away the layers to reveal character insights and complex plot twists that take time to develop slowly. In major studio science fiction films these days, the focus tends to be on spectacle, action and visual effects rather than character. I’ve never once received a studio note on a feature to slow down the pace and focus on character.
Perhaps most significantly, television is increasingly where the most interesting books (except for The Martian and a few others) are getting adapted. Witness the upcoming adaptations of Childhood’s End, The Expanse, Foundation, The Man in the High Castle and a few others. It’ll be interesting to see if these TV adaptations can actually live up to their source material, though.