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Science fiction on television

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Michelle Jahn
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« on: September 20, 2010, 01:23:05 pm »

Science fiction television history and culture

Science fiction has been a popular genre with television viewers in the United States almost since its inception, and the country has produced many of the best-known and most popular science fiction shows in the world. Most famous of all these – indeed, perhaps the most famous science-fiction program of all – is the iconic Star Trek and its spin-off shows, comprising the Star Trek franchise.

The first popular science-fiction program on American television was the children's adventure serial Captain Video and His Video Rangers, which ran from June 1949 to April 1955.[1] ABC's own attempt to cash in on the success of Captain Video was a small screen version of Buck Rogers in 1950. Other important live-action space adventure series of the early 1950s included Flash Gordon, Space Patrol, and Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers.

Science Fiction Theatre was an early anthology series, running from 1955 and 1957. It was followed by The Twilight Zone in 1959 and The Outer Limits in 1963. Lost in Space, a space opera which aired from 1965 to 1968, became popular with audiences. It was followed by the influential Star Trek, conceived by Gene Roddenberry and produced by Desilu Productions on the former RKO lot, which later was acquired by Paramount; it aired on NBC. When NBC tried to cancel it in early 1968, the show was so popular among fans that a campaign organized by Bjo Trimble successfully demanded its return, redefining the relationship between television networks and audiences. However, the eventual cancellation of Star Trek led to a decline in science fiction on American television.

During the late 1970s, Star Wars reignited interest in science fiction. This led to the production of shows including Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica (1978–1980).

In 1983, the miniseries V used both Cold War and World War II allegories about totalitarianism, propaganda, collaboration, and resistance. In 1987, enduring fan interest led to the development of the Star Trek sequel Star Trek: The Next Generation, which became extremely successful, and led to the later sequels Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and finally Star Trek: Enterprise, which ended in 2005.

In 1993, seaQuest DSV explored environmental themes. In the same year, Babylon 5 began, set in a detailed universe, using a multi-threaded multi-level story arc. Although ratings were weak among general audiences, Babylon 5 had unprecedented support within science fiction fandom. It raised the bar expected by audiences and led to a broad increase in the quality of science fiction on television in the late 1990s. The time travel drama Quantum Leap used contemporary settings to find a broader audience.

The X-Files tapped into popular conspiracy fears and generational angst to find great commercial success throughout the decade. Shows with fantasy and horror elements drew much influence from The X-Files, and generally attracted large audiences, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and spinoff Angel.) Its influence on the sci-fi genre was still greatly felt throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

Near the end of the decade, some comic science fiction shows were popular: 3rd Rock from the Sun, and the animated series Futurama.

In the 21st century, shows with paranormal themes like Medium and Ghost Whisperer had appeared on mainstream networks. Many shows popular with American audiences are now produced outside the US, including Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica.

In recent years, the much lower costs of reality television shows have hit all television dramas, but especially those with unusual cost requirements such as science fiction shows. This has led to a sharp decline in production since 2003, though shows like the 2004 reimagined Battlestar Galactica series, NBC's Heroes, and ABC's Lost attract strong audiences.

First run syndication was the most important venue for science fiction television between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s. After this period, specialty channels such as Syfy have replaced first run syndication as a significant venue for new shows.

Prior to recent years, science fiction television shows were normally centered around a premise and characters were defined essentially based on what they did or encountered in the course of their adventures. However, the growing trend (or, paradigm shift,) towards character-centered drama and naturalistic plots and settings has replaced the episodic action-adventure format that was once standard for television science fiction. Cosmic themes, sense of wonder, exotic settings, technobabble, so-called Big Dumb Objects, psychedelic imagery, and "two fisted action" have been mostly phased out in favor of human content and contemporary themes. Also, the demographic audience for science fiction has changed from mostly male to a significant female presence demanding more human elements and stronger female character representation.[citation needed] The aforementioned reimagined Battlestar Galactica is one of the most noted examples of the naturalistic approach towards television science fiction. Although television science fiction has always frequently addressed moral and social themes, recent series have done so with less subtlety and with more blatantly political themes. The anthology format popularized by Rod Serling rarely appeared in science fiction television after the 1980s, though aspects of this were used in both The X-Files and the 90s reincarnation of The Outer Limits. The current format, which was unintentionally popularized by Chris Carter of The X-Files, is toward long story arcs and season long plots with character oriented subplots.

At one time, prominent science fiction authors were frequently recruited to write episodes of various series, such as William Gibson's and Stephen King's work on The X-Files. Other writers include Larry Niven who wrote for Land of the Lost. The last major involvement of a science fiction writer was Harlan Ellison who served as a creative consultant on Babylon 5. This has also largely disappeared due in part to the logistics of writing for television and the reality of proper television drama taking precedence over good science fiction.

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