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April 29 2009

The Great Sci-Fi Divide: Why don't we want science fiction on TV? EW asks the ultimate question.

EW asks the ultimate question. Only minor mention of Dollhouse, but very pertinent subject matter.

Don't be silly; the Ultimate Question is 6x9.
I thought "6x9" was the answer to the question of what is the Ultimate Question, to which 42 is the Ultimate Answer. Man, this is like pan-dimensional Jeapardy.

Anyway, EW raises a very good question, why is Fi-Sci often much more successful in movies than on TV?

I think the answer is that movies have the big screen, big sound, big budget and big effects, which are often a big part of Fi-Sci, while TV shows don't.

There's also a social stigma attached to being a Fi-Sci fan (sorry folks, but it's true). A one-off movie is no big deal. It's a single event, a pop culture touchstone. It doesn't turn you into a geek anymore than checking out Burning Man turns you into a freak or attending an Olympic event turns you into a sports nut. However, regularly watching a Fi-Sci program on TV, week after week -- that's not a one-off -- that's more like a lifestyle.
I think you meant 6 * 7, didn't you?

We go to TV to escape from reality, to a better place. For most people, that means a place where thinking is not required. For most good science fiction, thinking is mandatory. In this context, space opera is not science fiction, but romance; Chuck is spy-opera, another romance subset, Dollhouse is science fiction, Firefly skirts the edges of both.

Advertisers, I suspect, don't want thinking audiences.

[ edited by htom on 2009-04-29 23:08 ]
I don't see why science fiction necessarily correlates with thinking. It doesn't take a genius to understand most episodes of Star Trek, but damned if Survivor doesn't have some of the most intricate plotting and gameplay I've ever seen on television. I'd bet it has more to do sci-fi shows having a social stigma and costing a lot more to produce. I vote for the return of crappy special effects!
Quite a lively discussion in the comments of the linked article. Of course, whedonesque being the only place on the net I get my Dollhouse news, I never heard it referred to as "Dullhouse". Such a shame...
@htom Actually, I do believe the reference from the books (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) is, in fact, 6*9.

I was silly and read through the comments at EW, only to find myself getting annoyed at the condescending nature of many of said comments, which amounted to a lot of "People, particularly Americans, are too stupid and too lazy to appreciate these shows." For one, liking science fiction TV is not about intelligence; it's about taste, it's about preferences, and it's about what you're looking for in your television shows. Not everyone approaches their entertainment choices in the same way, and to belittle those who look for something you don't look for is silly.

(Oh, and AlanD? Fi-Sci, hee.)
I wish more people watched science fiction on TV. I could go my whole life without seeing another movie...Serenity was the last one I've seen in a theater and I have to stretch to think of movies I've seen since them. (A Dog's Breakfast and Starship Troopers, both on Hulu).

Truthfully I don't think people consider movies to be science fiction. In high school I know a girl who said she hated scifi and argued with me when I pointed out that Jurassic Park was science fiction. People who loved Independence Day wouldn't think to watch an episode of Star Trek. And I have no knowledge of movies since I graduated high school, so my examples are over a decade old.
I took lit a class in high school called "philosophy through science fiction" which gave me a deper understanding of what it is that I love about science fiction (and that dollhouse does, but some scifi may fail to do). By asking the reader (or in the case of TV/movies, the viewer) to suspend their disbelief about the fantastical/science fiction element, the author/writers create an opening in the viewer's mind where it's not such a big leap to take the one step further to have them suspend their disbelief of social or moral issues that may arise.

The basic idea is that if you've already got the reader/viewer suspending their disbelief for core/major parts of the society depicted (technologically), then it's not such a big leap to ask them to suspend their disbelief about social or moral codes. This then lets the writer make social commentary (or at least, ask the pointed questions) that's not immediately bashing a particular society (i.e. instead of saying "The Americans are too obsessed with technology and see how it led to bad things" the writers of BSG can say "The people on the 12 worlds of Kobol were too obsessed with technology, and see how it led to bad things." this is a distilled version of the message I think it actually say, btw!).

I think the reason why scifi is therefore so off-putting to so many people has to do with the opening up of minds that tends to go along with science fiction.

@jkalderash - to prove my point, Star Trek is the television show that FIRST showed an interracial kiss on the air in 1968.
People just want science fiction concepts wrapped in a prettier package than what they perceive they're currently getting. Lost is still going strong. Even though I don't watch Heroes anymore, it is evidently doing well enough that NBC is going to continue with that.

Science fiction can work on TV, it just has to avoid being too geeky.
I can tell you why my mother doesn't watch sci-fi. She says that sci-fi is "only for those smart-asses who think they know everything". Sorry about the language, but you get the idea.

You gotta wonder why she maintains that position, I mean she is intelligent herself, and yet, she thinks only intellectual elites who look down on her for being stupid watch sci-fi.
@boykit - I agree science fiction has a fantastic ability to ask interesting questions and tell stories no other genre could tell (well, maybe fantasy). My point is that correlation does not imply causation: yes, sci-fi is an awesome and thought-provoking genre and yes, it seems to be losing ground in terms of mainstream popularity - but it is not fair to draw the conclusion that sci-fi is losing ground *because* it's thought-provoking. (To be fair, I'm not sure you were really arguing this either, but it seems to be an idea that's thrown around a lot, and as nanceoir said, it's a little condescending.)

Honestly, this article is a bit of stretch, given that one of the most popular and talked-about sci-fi shows of all time (BSG) just ended, and another (Fringe) is going strong. (And LOST! I mean, it was initially marketed as survivors on a desert island, but I don't think any of its millions of viewers are under that delusion five seasons in.) The other current sci-fi shows (like Dollhouse, TSCC, Reaper) have plenty of excuses to fail that don't involve being too smart for the average viewer, from bad time slots to crappy writing. (I personally don't think they have crappy writing, but a LOT of people disagree with me, so maybe I'm wrong.) And because sci-fi shows are expensive, there are going to be comparatively fewer sci-fi shows than, say, reality shows, and even fewer are going to be mainstream successes.

My point, and I sort of have one, is there are a lot of factors that go into why a particular show or genre gets viewers, and we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that people who fail to watch sci-fi don't watch it because they can't handle it.

ETA: I think my earlier comment was not particularly well-phrased. Science fiction can involve "thinking," obviously, but it can be really superficial too (reruns of Star Trek and Quantum Leap come to mind here, even though I'm sure those shows had moments of brilliance). Ugh, I don't know what I'm saying, ignore me!

[ edited by jkalderash on 2009-04-30 02:58 ]
I think most people enjoy Sci-fi, particularly judging by block buster movies. Not all TV shows bring in those massive audiences because they are too dark (like X-Files was, and BSG has been) or too complicated/inconsistent (like Lost and Heroes have been).

But we all should know the ultimate answer = 42.
Simple Answer:

Because the people that would have watch Science Fiction on TV in the past are now spending their time on the computer, playing video games, watching Blu-rays and downloading their favorite shows via bittorrent. And some are even DVRing there shows to watch later.
I think everyone probably has good points on this. Honestly, I think it's just a combination. As much as we call Lost science fiction, are we really thinking about social issues when we watch it or are we thinking about plot because it's an engaging serial? I think that is where the point about traditional sci fi "requiring too much from the audience" is valid.

We've reached a point in consumer taste for better or for worse (and Joss would probably argue for the better) where plot and characters are king. When you do that, it really eliminates a LOT of options for social commentary because in that format the questions have to be asked in season or story arc form. All the "thinking" tends to be about what mystery hasn't been solved or who is going to do what next.

It gets the job done, but leaves a show that has more in common with a soap opera than a traditional science fiction show. And the problem is, if your science fiction looks like a soap opera (BSG I'm looking at you) then why bother with sci fi at all when you can get the same experience without having to make your imagination do backflips?

Heck, even Stargate is sliding that way. I just think that maybe traditional science fiction doesn't fit with current tastes while modern science fiction copies too much from other saturated genres to the point that there aren't a whole lot of people discovering sci fi.

But things tend to be cyclical, so maybe in a few years or a decade it will flip again and people will want more sci fi.

[ edited by azzers on 2009-04-30 04:53 ]
While those are all valid arguments, I think the real answer is that the studios get a better return for their investment for a reality show in the television market. Therefore they push the advertising on those shows and barely advertise at all for shows like Dollhouse and Firefly.

If it does not get good advertising the show is going to fail.

The studios can still turn a profit for sci-fi movies though, so they are willing to invest more heavily in them with expensive special effects and millions in advertising.

It is all about the money.

God I hope that reality show movies never catch on. :(
I think a better question is, why is reality TV all the rage, but documentary movies regarded as dullsville?
6*9=42 is the whole point - sheesh!!! :)

Is society too stupid for fi-sci? Just look at the successful shows on TV and ask yourself that question again ...
We go to TV to escape from reality, to a better place. For most people, that means a place where thinking is not required. For most good science fiction, thinking is mandatory. htom | April 29, 23:06 CET

Maybe all this means is that I'm not "most people", but what I want from entertainment is exactly the opposite. I do definitely want to "escape from reality" with my entertainment, but for me, that means a "thinking is mandatory" show. A "thinking is not required" show bores me to irritated distraction, then I'm right back in a space where my own r/l problems are vying for my attention.

I have a strong suspicion that most devout SciFi fans - those of us who want quality, thought provoking shows on TV that address life's Big Questions and moral dilemmas - feel the same.
I'm not saying I want to be educated and depressed (for that, there's PBS). But I have a brain and I want it seriously engaged while I'm being entertained.
I also want my emotions engaged and for a very long time (say, since B5),the really good quality Scifi and fantasy shows (BtS and AtS), are the ones that have given me that experience.

BTW, relative newbies here are a fun, articulate bunch. ;) .
All you gotta do is look at the popularity of NASCAR and know Sci-Fi is forever doomed.
I really wish someone would discover the answer to this and solve whatever the problem may be. I'm tired of quality shows getting snuffed just because most people aren't watching them.
I think a lot of people are, understandably given the nature of this forum, collapsing the ideas of quality, thought-provoking TV and sci-fi TV. While they sometimes overlap, they are not the same thing.

Everyone is going to disagree about the particulars, but to give some examples that spring to my mind: shows like Deadwood, The West Wing, and The Wire are all quality, thought-provoking TV, but not sci-fi; shows like pick-some-recent-SyFy-Channel-movie are sci-fi, but not quality thought-provoking TV.

So, while sci-fi is ONE way to ask big questions about the nature of humanity/the universe/etc., it's not the only way, and trying to attribute sci-fi's lack of popularity to the fact that it confronts those big questions seems off-base. Why are non-sci-fi shows that deal with them relatively successful (or, if they aren't, then is the lack of sci-fi jsut a subset of the lack of such shows)? Or, alternately, why aren't sci-fi shows that are not particularly intellectually challenging (a sci-fi sitcom or sci-fi weekly drama, for example) more popular?

I think that one way to account for the lack of popularity is that sci-fi has a greater barrier to entry. You have to "get" the premise of the show, and while that doesn't necessarily require intellectual acumen or force one to confront deep questions about humanity, it does require a certain amount of attention to relate to. Whereas, a show about people living on a cul de sac in suburbia, or cops in New York, or what goes on in a hospital is more immediately relatable, because it doesn't seem so foreign.

(Would Dollhouse have needed to re-introduce its premise over and over again if its premise had been, say, ER's or Law & Order's?)
All the theories of "Nielsen rating system sucks/new distribution methods/lousy budgets/etc," contribute to the problem, but the truth of the matter, I GUARANTEE, really boils down two major factors: Stale Character and Plot Development, and Idiot Networks

1) I like to call this the "Dragonball Z Syndrome." Most sci-fi shows are extremely formulaic, and most of them have generic ensemble casts. Look at every Star Trek. You've got the captain, the first officer, the doctor, the engineer, the science officer, the helmsmen, and the comm person. One's serious, one's super smart, one's charming, one's a hot chick, one's comic relief, two are aliens (one of them has bumps on his/her head), and maybe one's an AI thrown in for good measure. Unless you're on the air for several years, you never get good development for half the characters, and by that point, you've seen the same plot repeated a dozen times. Look at Stargate or the aforementioned DBZ . . . every season, there's a new, powerful enemy, they spend all season trying to take down that enemy, they finally win, and next season, whaddya know?! There's a new, even MORE dangerous enemy! And in the episodes they aren't focusing on the season plot, they're repeating the same tired scenarios other writers used in other shows a decade ago. There's the "time loop" episode and the "evil doppelgangers" episode and the "out of phase" episode and the "framed for a crime" episode and on And On AND ON!! It was fresh when they did it the first time on Dr. Who or Star Trek TOS, or X-Files, or even Star Trek TNG. But to see the same friggin' stories on Stargate and Atlantis and Eureka and Buffy, ad infinitum, it's no wonder America has gotten bored with sci-fi!

2) A lot of sci-fi shows premier on Fox, and Fox is notorious for canceling shows, ANY shows, before they've made a name for themselves. Or they premier on Sci-Fi channel, which is known neither for their high budgets, nor their vast creativity and originality. Simple as that.

The two, and ONLY two, sci-fi shows I've watched in recent years that did no fall into the DBZ Syndrome pattern (and I'll admit, I've not watched Dollhouse, so it could be an exception as well) are BSG and Firefly. Firefly, of course, fell victim to rule number 2. BSG . . . honestly, I think the story really had played itself out. Sometimes, you can only take a story so far, and it's time to be done.

A sci-fi show WILL be successful on TV if the networks stop following the old formula of "what makes a popular sci-fi show" and starts following the new formula of "what makes apopular show PERIOD." Narrow the cast a bit, make a more original premise, make your main character REALLY engrossing (like Gregory House . . . no matter how lame the show around him gets, people keep watching because they want to watch HIM), make one or two solid supporting characters, stop falling to the old standby stories that we've seen before, and build your universe quickly. You can add the finer nuances later, but make sure your fanbase gets the setting right from the start.

And for God's sake, don't sell your show to Fox!!

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