When I was growing up, science fiction and fantasy TV shows tended to share three main elements: they were usually 1) pure action-adventure affairs; 2) filmed in the abandoned quarries, forests, and subdivisions of Vancouver; and 3) were episodic/monster-of-the-week shows. You know the drill: Hercules, Xena, Sliders, SeaQuest 2032, Stargate: SG-1, The X-Files, Farscape, Andromeda, Bablyon 5, Brisco County Jr., et al. I did say “usually” but to be honest, I’m not coming up with many outliers here. (SeaQuest wasn’t filmed in Canada but Florida, so there’s one.)
Then Battlestar Galactica came and everything started to change.
The new BSG wasn’t a ’90s-style action show; it combined action with deep psychological drama using themes of war and control ripped from its Bush-era newspapers. It was a gripping serial, and the rare few “episodic” episodes tended to suck. And… well, it was still filmed in Canada, but the use of elaborate sound-stages, special effects, and lens filters made British Columbia a whole different place compared to the half-dozen times Stargate visited the same gravel pits or that questionable pile of sand.
Take off the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and compare the first episodes of The X-Files to the first episodes of Supernatural or Fringe—the plotting, the sets, the cinematography, everything—and you will see how much things changed in a decade and a half. This isn’t to denigrate the old shows—I enjoyed watching them then, and enjoy watching them now. But with hindsight, it’s easy to see how they owed more to the Star Trek school of SFF TV: the school of styrofoam rocks and rubber aliens, dealing with safe themes and moral issues that the Cleavers could talk about over dinner. For me, Battlestar Galactica was the paradigm shift, part of the point where HBO-quality dramas started to hit basic cable.
The same combination of gritty action and complex drama has sent several crime shows to runaway success: Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, basic cable shows that rivaled HBO’s dramas like The Sopranos. Channels like USA had already started to produce shows with deeper content like Monk, Burn Notice, and In Plain Sight, and one landmark series, Lost, came from basic network television… but these were still pretty safe, very episodic shows. AMC and FX put out some of the best programming of the 21st-century, demanding series that ask a lot from their viewers—they make you think, they make you cringe, they whipsaw you around with cliffhangers and surprises, and yet you watch it all the more.
It’s just part of the larger shift in TV programming that has taken us from Dragnet‘s detectives getting the bad guys to Breaking Bad‘s swan-song for a criminal mastermind, from the mindless pap of Green Acres to the darkly adult satire of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. TV has grown up. It just took until the early 2000s to do so.
You can see the shift in SFF television, too. Compare the old-school Doctor Who to its modern successor; the shoestring budget is gone, and oddly the mini-serials have been replaced by a more episodic series that incorporates season-long overarching plot threads, but it isn’t afraid to be dark and complex. (Or in the case of the award-winning “Blink” episode, dark and complex and meta.) Or look at AMC’s blockbuster The Walking Dead, which often struggles to throw off the shackles of its comics origin but, in its last two seasons, has finally come into its own as a serious adult drama… that just happens to have zombies in it.
Ironically Sci-Fi never capitalized on their gains after the new BSG; series like Eureka could have easily fit into the 1990s school of SFF TV. While the BSG spin-off Caprica kept the same production values, rich characters, and deep drama, it wasn’t enough to stay afloat for more than one season. And it’s taking SFF as a genre longer to adapt compared to its crime cousin. Maybe I just didn’t watch enough of it, but ABC’s Legend of the Seeker owed more to Hercules than HBO’s Game of Thrones… perhaps why it died after two seasons. Meanwhile, you could see cancelled fan darlings Firefly and Jericho as ahead of the curve—Jericho in particular, with its serial-style plot that could frustrate viewers who missed a week but is ideal for binge-watching.
Now, we have a streaming-content company (Netflix) and the distributor you buy books from (Amazon) making their own series, also aiming to compete with the premium content from HBO/Showtime (and AMC/FX). Which leads to some interesting questions for TV’s future. Can we even still call them “television” shows, when they’re not broadcast just to TVs but streamed to everything from phones to tablets to computers? In the hunt for darker, edgier, more award-nominated content, is there still room for a lighthearted Hercules-style monster-of-the-week romp? Will Netflix-style binge watching impact how TV channels provide content, or how they plot their shows?
Television spent its first fifty years roughly unchanged, yet the last few decades have seen such a rapid period of flux that the next fifty years of TV is anyone’s guess.