2017: The Year the Space Opera Returned

It’s about frakking time. Science Fiction TV is finally experiencing a much deserved Renaissance. For first time since 2003, three expensive large-scale Space Opera dramas will be simultaneously in production.

Television executives in the early 2000s failed to see the value of expensive Space Operas to their networks and unceremoniously pulled the plug on the entire genre. Paramount executives ended 17 years of continuous Star Trek production when they sentenced Star Trek: Enterprise to the guillotine in 2005. A year earlier, Fox executives canned Joss Whedon’s expensive albatross, Firefly. Only Battlestar Galactica with its timely dystopian themes experienced a level of success that allowed the showrunners to complete their vision. This probably only happened because a lone NBCUniversal executive had a fetish for weird glowy robot sex.

While TV has traditionally been a very shortsighted what-have-you-done-for-me-now industry, the rise of streaming has changed the paradigms of how television networks are supposed to make a profit. Netflix has demonstrated via basic metrics that Space Opera is still a much beloved genre by viewers. While these shows may not have blown up the ratings when they originally aired they have continued to attract new fans, and more importantly to executives, new streaming subscribers long after they wrapped production.

Fans dedicated to the genre have gotten the short end of the stick since the beginning of television, but the growth of binge watching has finally given big budget sci-fi room to breathe again. Make a show right the first time, and people will buy countless printings of newly remastered DVD box sets and let you charge their credit card on a monthly basis to watch it over and over again for decades. Executives have finally realized that these shows offer guaranteed revenue streams that have nothing to do with hemorrhaging ad revenue. These three swan songs of Space Opera – Enterprise, Firefly, and Battlestar – have been loss leaders for the DVD industry, and continue to be heavily watched whenever they appear on Netflix. As network executives attempt to create rival streaming services and cash in on the binge watching trend they have finally realized that Space Opera’s death was a tragic mistake.

Now let’s show off some of the fruit of 2017’s Space Opera Renaissance.

The Big Kahuna: Star Trek Discovery

A lot has gone on behind the scenes with Star Trek since 2005. When Viacom gave up their television channels and split the company in 2006, Paramount gave up the television rights to make new Star Trek shows to the newly formed CBS Corporation. While all previous Star Trek on film and television shared the same canon and creative team, Star Trek Discovery is the first series that will not share a timeline, actors, or creative assets with its contemporaneous film counterparts. There are effectively two unique Star Trek timelines currently in production thanks to the schism between CBS and Paramount.

Star Trek Discovery

CBS has had a lot of behind-the-scenes drama while developing the show. They’ve sued fan film creators, delayed the series repeatedly, and “mutually parted ways” with critically acclaimed showrunner Bryan Fuller. CBS is keeping most of the actual details about the show hush. What is known? More plot details surface daily, but the general gist of the new show is that they are attempting to update Star Trek into a fully serialized drama, like Game of Thrones, which features a more openly diversified cast (gender roles, sexual preferences, and race), and more personal conflict and drama than previous Star Trek shows. They’ve also heavily updated the Klingons to make them more alien in appearance. Star Trek fans have always bristled at change, but they will eventually accept it if the show is entertaining.

While the show will premiere on the CBS Network September 24 @ 8:30PM (EST), the rest of the episodes will not be airing on any of CBS’ TV channel. CBS is using Discovery as a honey trap to get subscribers in the US and Canada to buy in to their CBS All Access Streaming Service which will cost $6 for an ad-supported subscription or $10 for an ad-free one. No news yet on a Blu-ray release date for Discovery. I fear CBS might drag their feet on any home video release for Discovery as a way of encouraging subscriptions to CBS All Access. People outside of the US and Canada are definitely getting a better deal, as Discovery will be available to them as it “airs” on Netflix.

The Plucky Rival: The Orville

Starting in 2011, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane publicly approached CBS with a pitch to reboot Star Trek on television. Scorned by CBS and Paramount, MacFarlane took the sage advice of Khan Noonien Singh to heart, “Revenge is a dish best serviced cold…. It is very cold in space,” and developed his own space series at Fox. Perhaps Fox executives realized they could have gotten a much bigger check from Netflix if they had given science fiction more of a chance in 2004? Needless to say, it is bizarre that guy who brought us Johnny Bravo, Family Guy, American Dad, and two movies about a rude pot-smoking teddy bear is now taking a serious attempt at Space Opera.

The Orville

The joke is apparently on Fox’s executives if they thought The Orville was simply going to be a new comedy series. MacFarlane has stated “he hopes to revive the optimistic sci-fi of the 90s” and he has recruited a boatload of former Star Trek veterans including former showrunner Brannon Braga, as well as Iron Man director Jon Favreau to help him with the series.

There’s a palpable tension in the air regarding a rivalry between Fox’s The Orville and CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery. The last time Star Trek faced a rival like The Orville was during the mid-90s when Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine were both in production. That rivalry created two of the best Science Fiction shows in television history, and I hope the result is similar in 2017.

Most importantly, Fox is taking a less sequestered approach to releasing The Orville. They will be airing it on network television in a prime time Sunday evening slot (right before Football). While Fox certainly was taking streaming into account when they greenlit The Orville, they also seem to have a great deal of confidence in the series as a success on regular network television. There hasn’t been much news regarding streaming or Blu-ray releases, but I imagine it will take the typical route of most Fox TV shows.

The Orville premieres in the US on September 10 at 7PM EST. No information is available for a Blu-ray release date.

The Hipster Underdog: The Expanse

The Expanse is based on a hit series of hard science fiction mystery novels written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The TV series is almost two years old and entering its third season next year. The production quality is absolutely fantastic and it is amazing to see Syfy actually funding a show that lives up to the channel’s name. The show is defined by a deep sense of mystery, very human characters, as well a surprisingly realistic look at the physics and science of humans living in space.

The Expanse

The Expanse’s ratings have been abysmal. However, producers have surprisingly renewed the show repeatedly despite its continued bad ratings. This is why I believe there is once again hope for big budget Science Fiction on TV. Syfy Channel isn’t viewing ad dollars as the primary source of funding for The Expanse. Instead, they have brought in international funding for production as well as sold the show to streaming partners including Amazon and Netflix. Much like with Star Trek Discovery, Netflix has secured the rights to show the Expanse as it airs in many international markets. Let’s hope Syfy doesn’t decide to return to its old ways and cancel the Expanse as it finally picks up ground. This is a great example of making science fiction work without depending on ad revenue.

The Expanse is readily available both for streaming and for purchase on Blu-ray. The first season currently offered to US viewers via Prime Video, and many international viewers can watch at least the first season on Netflix. Blu-rays for Season 1 and Season 2 can be purchased on Amazon. No date has been set for the beginning of Season 3 on Syfy.