TV shows reluctant to accept sci-fi title

Brannon Braga, writer and executive producer of the upcoming television series Terra Nova, which is about people who travel back in time, recently said that his show was not really science fiction, even claiming that it has less science fiction elements than the earlier seasons of Lost.

Brannon Braga | Creative Commons

Really? A television series about people from the future who travel to a human colony in the prehistoric era? A series whose executive producer, Steven Spielberg, is responsible for some of the biggest science fiction movies of all time?

And coming from Braga himself, who was an executive producer for Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise and the short lived sci-fi series Threshold and Flashforward.

Oh, Terra Nova’s totally not a science fiction TV series.

This odd attempt to play down the science fiction elements of a show is nothing new in the television world.

For years, the producers of Lost denied that it was a science fiction program. It wasn’t until the fifth season, when the elements became too obvious to veil, that the producers admitted that the show had ventured into sci-fi territory.

In response to the recent arguments about Terra Nova, Lost producer Damon Lindelof tweeted a revealing message.

“Sigh. I remember when we denied being a sci-fi show, too.”

It seems that these attempts to downplay or dispel any notion of a show containing science fiction elements are purely to attract a wider audience, as if the very idea of a show being science fiction is a mass deterrent. The growing number of shows denying the genre indicate that something about sci-fi does not sit well with those who work on the show, despite an overtly sci-fi subject.

Many creators are afraid that audiences will simply see an ad for their show and lump it among generic sci-fi. One problem many viewers and creators have is that they associate science fiction with the typical image of lasers, spaceships, aliens and other Star Trek/Star Wars-esque tropes, ignoring any other possibility for a sci-fi story. For some reason, Braga is afraid of Terra Nova being seen as just that.

For some reason, any show dealing with science fiction, fantasy or anything supernatural or speculative is filed under the sci-fi label. It’s a somewhat demeaning term, crowding all of those shows together. Is The X-Files the same show as Stargate: SG-1? No. Why, then, are they both put under the banner of genre TV?

This fear and marginalization of “genre” shows seems to miss out on what science fiction does and why it’s popular in the first place. At its best, science fiction takes its protagonists into unfamiliar situations beyond the perceived normal, isolating the person and delving into what makes the human mind tick.

The seminal science fiction writer Isaac Asimov summed up science fiction’s potential rather well in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

What’s most perplexing about rejecting the sci-fi genre is that, at the same time, there are so many shows that are embracing their science fiction or fantasy elements.

Fringe, now in its third season, is based entirely on bizarre and fictional science elements. Other shows like V and the soon to be released Falling Skies, also produced by Spielberg, are based on the premise of an alien invasion. True Blood is one of the biggest shows on cable, and what is it about? Vampires and werewolves. And it’s still going strong even after the Twilight backlash kicked in.

Producers should not be afraid of the science fiction label. The success of some of these science fiction-embracing shows proves that audiences are open to a wider range of television than one might suspect.

Unfortunately, networks and television stations today do not appear to realize that. The disdain for “genre shows,” shows that are grounded in the fundamental tenents of their genre, is an odd bit of obliviousness, considering how many shows on the air today could be labeled as stale byproducts of their genre.

Right now there are innumerable television shows that fit neatly into one genre. There are reality shows, sitcoms, dramas, horror stories, “docu-soaps” and enough medical and police procedurals to drive a person mad.

That a show must deny its identity to today’s audience makes no sense.

How Terra Nova fares will depend on its acting, scripts and production, not its existence as a science fiction show. It’s time for those behind the wheel to realize that.

Nicholas Slayton is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Age of the Geek,” runs Fridays.

8 replies
  1. Dan
    Dan says:

    Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse. I guess that TV executives have realized that geeks are too intelligent to market to.

  2. DarioSpeedwagon
    DarioSpeedwagon says:

    I like that the blame for poor returns on investments in television, and movies, is placed at the feet of “genre” rather than, say, mediocre ideas poorly executed or using casts that are photogenic but incapable of acting.

  3. Robet J. Sawyer
    Robet J. Sawyer says:

    FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name, and I was a scriptwriter and consultant on the series. I can tell you from experience that those working on genre shows receive strict instructions from the network marketing department about how a show is to be positioned in interviews.

  4. Cindy Dashnaw
    Cindy Dashnaw says:

    Americans are so quick to judge, it’s not surprising we’d make snap judgments about TV shows (and books, for that matter). I never thought I’d like a “science fiction” novel; I typically read Tolstoy, Dickens, Wharton, etc. And then I read an Orson Scott Card book that I had such meaning, and my mind was changed forever. Don’t let yourself be limited by what you think you know!

  5. Dan
    Dan says:

    Fringe is pure science fiction and look what’s happened to it. A brilliant show that is in danger of cancellation. (Watch it tonight, folks!)

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