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Sci-fi shows-A treacherous art form?

If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably aware of my fondness for sci-fi. As a fan, I’ve recently come to terms with a horrifying revelation: sci-fi shows are scrutinised a lot more than other genres.

There have been many notable sci-fi shows over the years, even amongst those unfamiliar with the genre. Doctor Who, Heroes, Killjoys, Black Mirror, Firefly and Red Dwarf are all good examples to draw on. And yet, it seems like for every show that becomes a success, there are a dozen that fade into obscurity. This can be said to be true of most genres of television but the difference lies within the threshold that these shows are judged against. I am also a fan of sitcoms and yet, when I look at the numerous sitcoms that are aired, many of which go beyond three seasons, it becomes clear that some could be argued to be ‘run of the mill’. How many times have you watched a sitcom recently and said the words ‘they’re just like Ross and Rachel from Friends’ or ‘The Simpsons did an episode like this once’? I’m not questioning the humour of the shows themselves. The Big Bang Theory, Mike and Molly, How I Met Your Mother and Baby Daddy all make me laugh, but after watching a few seasons, the plot points are arguably quite predictable and it’s not uncommon for characters to appear one dimensional. That doesn’t stop them from being renewed for more episodes though. Sci-fi shows on the other hand, really need to go out of their way to prove that they’re different from the rest. They are constantly under pressure to push the boundaries with bold new concepts. The irony is that too much focus on these concepts may cause the show to suffer in other regards.

Flashforward hooks the audience with the mystery of everyone on the planet losing consciousness for two minutes. Dark Matter revolves around a crew of strangers who wake up on a ship with amnesia, only to discover that they were previously wanted criminals. Lost was about passengers of a downed commercial flight, forced to survive on a seemingly supernatural island in the middle of nowhere. Vagrant Queen revolves around an exiled space monarch turned scavenger who, along with her team, must confront the oppressive Republic that has assumed control. All of these shows, and countless others within the genre, set themselves apart with the use of unique concepts. Why is it then that so many of them seem doomed to fail? Killjoys ran for five seasons but the viewing figures definitely dipped as time went on. Lost also had a similar run but many people thought that the show was becoming too smart for its own good and it didn’t manage to stick the ending. Dark Matter ran for three seasons and Vagrant Queen only managed one before it got cancelled. Obviously a huge factor behind cancellation revolves around how many viewers are being pulled in per episode but the fact remains that a lot of these shows are extremely popular, often obtaining cult followings shortly after they are removed from the air. Fans of the genre are not shy to show their support for the shows they love, so is it just a matter of timing? Is post show love simply no match for statistics and figures? Is it up to the fans to be more vocal and attentive during the show’s run? Unfortunately, the society we live in lends itself to people not catching shows when they first air and electing to stream them later on. If this trend continues, then maybe channels like SyFy need to catch on and create a dedicated streaming service for the niche sci-fi shows that gain such immense popularity.

A quirky breath of fresh air that's gone too soon

Of course, we still need to observe objective quality of programming. After all, it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy a product even if it isn’t of the best value. One man’s corned beef is another man’s prime steak. In order to prove my point, I will focus particularly on the 2020 series, Vagrant Queen, which was adapted from a comic book. Even though it’s not the first show to explore the spaceship crew dynamic, I truly believe that the main characters, Elida, Amae and Isaac, proved themselves to be both interesting and engaging. They work well with the tone that the show establishes, which is one of relative cheesiness and a sense of not taking itself too seriously. This by no means implies that it is less than other sci-fi shows, but rather that Vagrant Queen is aware of itself and isn’t afraid to stay true to what it is. Whether it’s Elida’s awkward attempts to make cool one-liners in the middle of a fight or the occasional action freeze frame technique which is deployed at least once per episode, the show has a distinctive flair to it. It’s certainly one of those shows where you’ll quickly know whether it’s for you or not, and I can understand if it isn’t some people’s cup of tea. Suffice to say that while I acknowledge it’s not the best sci-fi show I’ve seen, it is certainly a show for me and that belief is shared amongst numerous fans. This makes the show’s cancellation that much more heartbreaking.

I think that sci-fi is a genre that works best when it works for the people who love it. Understandably, networks will require a return on investment and need viewing figures to justify a show’s existence. However, this means that quality content may not get the chance to fulfil its potential simply due to a time constraint. A show with a unique concept should be given room to grow, especially when repetitive shows from other genres are allowed to continue due to their adherence to a tried and tested formula. As I mentioned above, streaming services seem to be the answer to this problem. It’s rather ironic that sci-fi of all genres does not seem to be taking advantage of the technology that is available to it.

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1 Comment

Alex Ransome
Alex Ransome
Jul 16, 2020

I think you've definitely recognised a pattern. I wouldn't necessarily say the genre is inherently "treacherous" but I agree with what you're saying:

  • Sci-fi is harder to consistently get right, as well as just getting concepts across to audiences in the first place is difficult.

  • Also, some concepts work in the same way that, Horror for example needs to be careful with its approach. They both can be picked apart easier and thus open to more criticism.

  • There are quality shows you mentioned like Black Mirror and Doctor Who which already set a high bar. Sometimes this makes other shows following it pale in comparison, or even leaving existing shows feeling stale because of how long they've been going on…

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