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The Syfying Of Science Fiction Is Both Good & Bad

Kris King Kris King
August 29th, 2009 2:00pm EDT
True BloodEveryone seems really into vampires lately. Sexy vampires that have steamy vampire sex with each other all the time. If not vampires than it's people with psychic abilities (Psych) or people that travel through alternate dimensions. And that's just on television. These days a major blockbuster movie can't make a return without aliens (District 9), killer robots (Transformers) or wizards (Harry Potter). We live in a time where Quentin Tarantino is playing with alternate history (Inglourious Basterds) and weepy chick flicks are about time travel (The Time Traveler's Wife).

Science fiction and fantasy are more popular than ever, but ask the average person if they're into sci-fi and they'll deny the allegation like a murder charge. After all, science fiction is for geeks - the kind of people that sulk around anime conventions and drool over robot women with names like Caprica Six or Seven of Nine. No one wants to associate with the geeks. Not even, apparently, The Sci-Fi Channel, who recently tried to scrub away the stink of Cheetos and Mountain Dew by switching their moniker to the hipper, Web 2.0 friendly name Syfy. And here's the weird thing: it worked. In July, "Warehouse 13," Syfy's first big show since the switch, drew in the network's largest female audience in its history.



Warehouse 13

Image © NBC Universal, Inc.



The past decade saw the end of "Star Trek"'s television run and the premature cancellation of Joss Whedon's "Firefly," but also saw a massive surge in popularity for sci-fi titles like "True Blood" and "Lost." Theaters became alight with sci-fi tinged stories that set a monster loose in Manhattan, saw sentient robot cars fight on the pyramids, and, most impressively, made "Star Trek" cool again. Yet, even with the genre's mass acceptance, a critically acclaimed gem like Syfy's "Battlestar Galactica," which The Boston Herald ranked as the greatest science fiction series of all time, never quite reached a mainstream audience. So while "Lost" became a water cooler staple, "Battlestar" suffered from a nerdy stigma, written off as the type of television for all the Dwight Schrutes of the world (see the following video clip).



Science Fiction Disguised As Something Else


So what's going on here? What makes the evil robots in "Battlestar" nerdier than the evil robots in "Transformers?" The trick to sci-fi and fantasy's newfound popularity is in the presentation. Networks and studios try to disguise these titles as being something other than just science fiction. The reason for the success of shows like "Lost," "Heroes" or "True Blood" is that they don't seem like sci-fi or fantasy. They're carefully presented as dramas with fantastical elements. For instance, while Syfy's "Warehouse 13" is often compared to "The X-Files," its tone is more akin to "Bones" or "Law & Order." The show includes enough fantasy to satisfy Syfy's core audience, but keeps the nerdy stuff broad enough to lure in non-genre fans. After all, it's not Sci-fi, it's Syfy.

This broadening of the genre has its perks. The success of broad titles like the ones listed above eases the reluctance of networks and studios to release more science fiction and fantasy. It's the reason that 1983's V mini-series is set for reboot, or the production of Syfy's upcoming "Battlestar Galacrica" prequel "Caprica," which takes place half-a-century before the events of BSG. Still, even "Caprica" is being produced with a broader audience in mind. When series creator Ronald D. Moore and Syfy president Dave Howe spoke with Variety, Howe said "We want people to come to this who've never heard of 'Battlestar Galactica'… I think there was a barrier to entry for some viewers, since it had the backdrop of space and spaceships." Moore even admits that many fans had to trick non-genre fans into watching the show: "There was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it." It seems that now, Moore and company hopes that "Caprica's" grounded premise will do the tricking for us.



Caprica

Image © NBC Universal, Inc.



Lukewarm Imitations


The effectiveness of this syfying of science fiction has its dark side as a number of stale titles slated for release tack on sci-fi/fantasy elements just to keep up with the trend. Enjoy Twilight and "True Blood?" Here's "The Vampire Diaries." Harry Potter more your game? Try on "Eastwick," ABC's adaptation of John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick." Practically every network is boasting a shifty show with a lame fantastic slant for Fall 2010. There's Fox's "Past Life," a police procedural show about a detective who explores people's troubled past lives, and ABC's hopeful "Lost" replacement "FlashForward," in which the entire global population has a simultaneous vision of their future.

Even though science fiction is more popular than ever, its presentation is watered down. The geek audience alone wasn't enough to float the likes of "Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles" or "Reaper," but they still managed to save "Dollhouse" and "Chuck" from the network axe. And while "Transformers" and G.I. Joe chew up the box office, traditional fair like District 9 proved to be a major money maker as well. It seems that we've hit a point in popular culture when being a science fiction or fantasy fan shouldn't be a mark of shame. Everyone likes robots and lasers and monsters. What's wrong with that?

Kris King
Story by Kris King

Starpulse contributing writer







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