Essay: Science Fiction Television as a Genre

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Science Fiction Television

As a genre, science fiction is medium that allows imaginary elements that are largely possible/probably within scientific laws, imaginative speculation, or building upon principles that are unproven but might be likely at some future time. It has been called "the literature of ideas," and is largely based on alternative possibilities or, as in the case of the ever popular Star Trek series of the 1960s, using the genre to address contemporary social issues (Gilks, et.al., 2003). Fortunately, the genre has evolved from its early days when Isaac Asimov called it "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings" (Asimov, 1952 in Wilson, 2009).

As a popular medium, television has not been part of modern culture very long. While it was commercially available in the late 1930s, there was not much broadcasting until the 1950s. Initial broadcasts were mostly fact based -- news, talk shows, etc., but as the medium developed and became accessible to more Americans, more entertainment was specifically commissioned for television -- game shows, variety shows, movies, and reality television. It has become such an iconic pastime that it is actually an influencer of culture and social medium. Despite any warnings, what people see on television becomes part of cultural fact. This has had a positive effect in leading the Civil Rights and Feminist movements forward by showing women and minorities in important roles, but negative effects by perpetuating a mythos towards children. Within the genre of science fiction, though, television not only embraced weekly serials (Twilight Zone, for example), but an outlet for motion pictures both made for television and those previously released in theaters. We see, though, that once the concept of advertiser sponsorship became a reality, programming of differing genres, including science fiction, rapidly grew (Edgerton, 2009).

Early Sci-Fi on Television -- We must remember that in the early years, television was still an experimental communications medium and, rather expensive for the typical family. This of course changed due to popular demand and reduction in price based on technological advances. In fact, many media critics believe that some of the best television has been in the science fiction genre ("Top 50," 2008). Some of the early serials, Flash Gordon for instance, were used as some of the first television programs since they were short, already filmed, and had an audience. By today's standards, of course, the special effects of these serials were quite primitive, but for the time period they were cutting edge. Then came other serializations, weekly stories designed to entertain and help the public accept the new medium.

It was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, however, that was the most important Sci-Fi television program of the 1950s, and the first to gain a widespread reputation for artistic merit. One can find a number of young "to be" stars of the 1960s in these programs, and 159 episodes were filmed, most not actually airing until the 1960s. The reason the series was both so innovative and successful was because it used top-notch writers, innovative plot lines, and quality directors. Additionally, the original Twilight Zone included episodes that really stretched what the television audience watched: horror, space exploration, alien invasion, time travel, and imaginative (actually mostly dystopian) view of the future of human society (Presnell and McGee, 2008).

Possibly what made Twilight Zone and later Star Trek and other Sci-Fi shows so cutting-edge and seminal in the history of television was their links to historical context. For example, the cold war issues are obvious in a number of TZ episodes; a stereotypical view of Fidel Castro is portrayed in another; and a satirization of Khrushchev vis-a-via a used car salesman being forced to tell the truth are just some examples of the innovation used. And, Serling pushed the buttons of many in the episode "For O'Clock" (April 6, 1962) which comments on McCarthyism through its focus on a fanatic who is obsessed tabs on his fellow citizens (Booker, 2004, 9).

Use of Television as Model of Society -- Star Trek, now taken for granted as a marketable brand, premiered in 1966 and fought desperately for its three years of production, finally succumbing to network pressure and not arising until syndication. Innovative creator Gene Roddenberry, however, used Sci-Fi to address a number of poignant cultural issues within American culture: racism, sexism, androgyny, Marxism, the Hippie movement, and even the first televised interracial kiss. Roddenberry himself knew what he was doing, and said, "[By creating] a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did not make them on Star Trek: We were sending messages and fortunately, they all got by the network" (Johnson-Smith, 2005, 79-85). Tomes could be written about Star Trek's influence on popular culture and multi-billion dollar franchise. But perhaps the most lasting impact was the courage to cast women and different ethnicities in starring roles, showing the network bosses that a series could be successful and still representative of American demography.

The 1990s and Network Skepticism -- After the cancellation of the third-season of Star Trek, there was a relatively dry television period, while there were various successes in motion pictures. Star Trek -- The Next Generation, premiered in 1987 and lasted until 1994, paving the way for additional network ideas that ultimately would result in an entire station focused on the genre. While the networks remained skeptical, probably because of the high costs of production, but there were a number of huge successes that have become cult classics, spawning movies, novels, and additional franchise materials. In particular, Stargate, The X-Files, and Babylon 5 continued on the tradition of utilizing the television medium to both entertain and offer choices within the medium. In fact, Stargate followed a number of complex archetypes that have their roots in ancient fables and myths (and not just the explanation of the Egyptian Gods), but a thoughtful and sometimes complex juxtaposition of "metatextual" humor and fable bordering on the metaphysical nature of Plato and Aristotle (Telotte, 2008, 278-84).

Contemporary Science Fiction Culture -- The importance of these programs is not only in the writing and context, but in bringing the medium of Sci-Fi to the general public. The genre remains thought provoking, and the public even more demanding for believable, interesting screenplays with top actors. One of the newest series to push the envelope, perhaps into speculative fiction, is the very successful ABC hit Lost. Certainly, like its predecessors, it pushes the envelope in story ideas, plot development, and the continuing sense of the "what if." The public, after two decades of Stephen King, are used to speculation and clamoring for stories in which "all is not as it appears" (Stafford, 2006). And, we now have a story, set in New York and Boston, in which a scientist is recovered from an asylum to help the FBI search for a super-secret organization that is using fringe science to experiment upon citizens, ostensibly to control the world. Fringe, somewhere between X-Files, The Twilight Zone and Dark Angel premiered in September 2008 on Fox; Season 2 premiered in September 2009 to highly successful ratings, showing that the public still demands its "Sci-Fi Fix" (Davenport, 2008).

The Sci-Fi, now Syfy, channel was launched in September 1992 as part of the NBC conglomerate NBC Universal. It specializes in science fiction, fantasy, horror and paranormal programming, including some specific made for the SyFy channel films. These films, typically with budgets from $1-2 million, are designed to be independent offerings for a new audience, clearly not marketed as "Block Busters," but still entertaining and though provoking. The importance of this station is the focus and the increase in viewership and statistics from 2007 to 2009 -- total viewers up 7% with double… [END OF PREVIEW]

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