Space ships & laser beams & big ideas

Science fiction can put big ideas on the small screen, and I’ve always had a thing for stories involving space ships and laser beams. In 2022 I’m spoilt for choice.

So far in the 21st century, fans of space shows have got plenty to choose from in older, established franchises such as Star Trek (Voyager‘s conclusion, Enterprise, and the various ‘Prime’ reboots); Star Wars (Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian, The Bad Batch, The Book Of Boba Fett, Obi Wan Kenobi, and the upcoming Andor and Ahsoka); Battlestar Galactica (and Caprica); Stargate (and Atlantis and Universe); V (a short-lived reboot of the 80’s TV series); and adaptations from literature such as The Expanse or Foundation.

What about original shows, not part of anything pre-existing?

Shows continuing from the 1990s

Terry (Futurama) is one of the few cartoon characters I share my name with, and this makes me happy.

Lexx (1997-2002) was a peculiar Canadian/German cult series that changed drastically from one season to the next. It’s so original, I don’t think anyone would be able to copy it even if they dared. The idea of a ragtag crew of misfits thrown together on a (in this case alien) space vessel didn’t originate with this series (maybe Blake’s 7?), but it did predate a few others that came out shortly afterwards.

Both Futurama and Farscape began in 1999, taking very different (but light-hearted) takes on the idea of a human protagonist finding themselves transported or transplanted far from home (much like 1920s/30s John Carter Of Mars, or Buck Rogers, or Flash Gordon).

In the animated Futurama (1999-2003 & 2008-2013, recommended viewing!), pizza delivery boy Philip J Fry is frozen for a millennium of rising and falling civilisations and gets thawed out to become an interstellar delivery boy, wittily playing with various tropes of science fiction and late Gen-X/ early Millennial slacker culture, throwing in a few heartfelt surprises on the way.

Farscape (1999-2003 & Peacekeeper Wars, 2004, also recommended viewing!) had astronaut John Crichton shot through a wormhole to a distant part of the galaxy to join a ragtag band of alien outlaws in the middle of an interstellar war, with fantastic creatures and designs (courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop), and vistas that easily match the most outlandish art to grace classic science fiction novels throughout the late 20th century.

Both these series survived premature cancellation in the early 2000s. Science fiction TV shows getting cancelled was a big thing in the 2000s.

The early 2000s

Starhunter (2000-2004) is relatively obscure these days, having had only two seasons before the creators fell out with the studio and further seasons were cancelled. It was an episodic Canadian series about bounty hunters on an old space ship. The second season is a reboot of the concept with a more ragtag crew of misfits.

Andromeda (2000-2005) is less obscure, being based on some of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s unused concepts, about the – you’ve guessed it – ragtag crew of a starship in a distant future, whose captain was frozen in time before a galactic apocalypse and was now trying to re-establish a civilised galactic commonwealth.

Firefly (2002, recommended) was also cancelled prematurely and concluded what little story it had been able to tell in the feature film Serenity (2005), after gaining quite a large and affectionate cult following for its distinct and likeable spaceship of rogues (oh, okay: ragtag misfits) travelling around a post-bellum, Wild West-style star system, barely one step ahead of law enforcement.

This wasn’t a terrific time for original science fiction TV shows – the ones that existed got cancelled early, and studios (when they weren’t excreting out endless “reality” TV shows) were more keen to capitalise on genre shows involving magical and supernatural themes like vampires, wizards, zombies, and dragons. Even established franchise shows like Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005), V (2009-2011), Battlestar Galactica‘s reboot prequel Caprica (2010), or Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2014) were cancelled before they could conclude their storylines (the last of these did get revived for this purpose in 2020).

Of course, all these came out before TV shows were available via streaming…

Renaissance of original TV space shows?

I think Killjoys (2015-2019, recommended) was the first space show since Andromeda to be able to tell its story to completion. It focused on a trio of interplanetary bounty hunters navigating the politics of their star system during an insidious alien invasion using spores and parasites (I should rewatch this and see how it fares in the age of Covid, much as Deep Space Nine pre-empted the “War on Terror”). The show had an energy and liveliness to it that helped it overcome a well-used initial concept. I think it deserves to be better known.

The Orville (2017-) is another show that took a well-used concept and made it its own – in this case, the optimistic (if not utopian) vision of space exploration as previously depicted in the original iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

At a time when science fiction was predominantly “gritty” (downbeat, violent, explicit, bloodthirsty, brooding, or simply artsy bollocks using space or the future as a background), it was a breath of fresh air to have a show that was bright and colourful and optimistic, depicting a world viewers would actually want to inhabit.

It started out poking fun at the tropes of its inspiration, but soon established itself as a series which “explored the human condition” – tackling issues relevant to our current society and culture, with a compassionate, thoughtfully progressive, and humanist perspective.

Mercer: I’m just policing myself because we all know how easy it is to judge another culture’s way of life just because it’s alien to us.
Grayson: But you have to balance that against some universal code of ethics.

About A Girl (Season 1, Episode 3)

At time of writing, the show has lasted 36 episodes over three seasons, and developed its own mythos. Each season concludes in a way that could be a finale if the series doesn’t get renewed, yet leaves enough story ideas open for continuation. The latest season, dubbed New Horizons has relied far less on the lightness and humour of the earlier episodes, yet at its best it can be both dramatic and uplifting (and no longer bound by the 45-minute time limit of older broadcast television).

Intriguingly, by going against the “grittiness” of contemporary shows, and by offering an anthology of stories which aren’t all serialised, the initial critical response to the series was quite poor, yet viewers rated it most highly. From this, it’s clear that the creators are making the kind of show they themselves want to see, and they’re not alone.

Another show I highly recommend is For All Mankind (2019-), set in an alternate history of the space race. The departure point is the Soviet Union landing a man on the moon before the USA, spurring NASA to achieve more with the political will (and money) behind it.

The series has an ensemble cast covering the astronauts, the technicians at mission control, and their families. The first season is set in the 1970s and covers the establishment of rival American and Russian lunar bases. The second is set in the 1980s and focuses on Cold War tensions between the two. The third is set in the 1990s and features a race to be the first to land a human on Mars, between the superpowers and an independent entrepreneur. At time of writing, a fourth season has been announced.

Most of the drama in the show comes not from conflict, but from having to solve problems in space. This is all about “hard science fiction” in which the technology is (mostly) realistic and certainly believable. Think of Apollo 13 or The Martian. The Cold War story does end up with guns on the Moon, but this simply leads to a bigger problem that endangers both sides in the second season finale.

The alternate history allows drama to be taken from the attitudes of recent society and culture – a couple of characters must hide their sexuality, for example, while another becomes embroiled in Cold War espionage – as well as the psychological pressures the astronauts and their families must endure from working in space, facing injury (for example, blindness from radiation) or mortality and bereavement. The only weak subplot is a bit of soap opera shenanigans involving one of the astronauts’ wives having an affair.

The setting in deep space is enough to provide the hazards and dramatic tension – when things go wrong, it provides some genuinely heart-stopping moments, heightened by the fact that any of the characters could perish (and sometimes do). Being an original series, nobody is protected by plot armour.

And yet, the problems encountered – on Earth and in space – can often be overcome, even if it takes time and sacrifice.

In its own way, like The Orville does, For All Mankind also provides an uplifting message for the audience. It’s interesting that two shows which draw on the past – the hey day of the space race, and a TV show produced at that time – should give so much hope for the future.

I would describe both as essential 21st century science fiction.

6 responses to “Space ships & laser beams & big ideas

    • It’s amazing how the show develops, isn’t it? Especially at the time, when its only competition was Star Trek Voyager.

      BBC2 had no idea what they were dealing with and treated it as a kids’ show, airing it at 6pm!

      • Very glad that The Peacekeeper Wars got made; if I was watching at the time and it had just got cancelled after the way season 4 ended, I’d have been proper raging.

      • That original cliffhanger – with no way of knowing if it would ever be resolved – was bloody brilliant! My flatmate and I cracked up laughing it was so perfect, like the ultimate fuck you to the studios: we’re going to tell the story we want to and not wrap things up to be done with it.
        But yeah: really glad Peacekeeper Wars got made! šŸ™‚

  1. Sci-fi’s always been treated a bit poorly, but we appreciate what we get more, I guess? Hurrah for mentions of Lexx – god, that show was batshit crazy! – and Farscape, which I adored. Killjoys and Orville, hurrah! Absolutely agree 100% on things getting to be fun, or nice, or hopeful – should be a LOT more of that, methinks!

    • I’ve just finished Orville: New Horizons’ finale – yep; after a heavier and more dramatioc season, it brings back that lightness of tone that drew me to the show in the first place (and time for a sweet B-plot with that ‘exploring the human condition’ message about why we can’t have our utopia in the 21st century just yet). šŸ™‚

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