It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a nerd in the 90s. On the one hand it was way less cool. In fact it was the definition of “Not Cool”. Today in 2015 I can say to someone, “Yeah I’m a total nerd,” and my voice will hold within itself a tone of snobby pride because somehow the world has become topsy-turvy and The Avengers have a goddmaned blockbuster series. “Yeah, I, like, totally collected vintage Captain America comics (*true fact) back in high school so, like, my opinion on the new movies is bla bla bla,” I hear myself saying in my darkest moments. But seriously things have gotten better for us nerd kings.
On the upside in the 90s television networks were seriously churning out the Golden Age of TV Science Fiction. That’s a phrase I just coined. Feel free to use it but for godsakes site me in you MFA thesis. There were three different Star Trek series aired during that decade (Yeah yeah, the Next Generation started in the 80s but by god it owned the 90s!). Aside from just Star Trek, though, there were countless second sons vying for the proverbial throne: Babylon 5, Stargate SG1 and Farscape to name a few.
It might be hard to imagine for a younger viewer because these days, even with general nerd-shows like Agent’s of Shield being churned out in abundance there aren’t a lot of shows set in outer space aboard spaceships, and obviously that’s what we’re here to discuss. The only show I can think of that really comes close to this criteria, and in fact it comes so close that it really defines the criteria, is Doctor Who, though really the good Doctor spends most of his (or maybe HER?) time in various vintages of London. Aside from that lone outlier, even sci-fi (or Syfy) shows like Defiance, which borrows heavily from the cliches of space travel shows is in fact set on Earth in the most boring possible place: St Louis (and by boring I mean fraught with violence). There’s also Falling Skies which is about an alien invasion. Again this is set on Earth. BORING.
Where did the live action space shows go? I’m pretty sure the answer is “They were all cancelled”. The most famous of these is of course Firefly, cancelled after one season during which the episodes were thrown on the air out of order to the complete confusion of viewers like myself, who in fact watched Firefly while it was on the tv, and because the first episode aired was not the first in the series it was hella mystifying. But Firefly wasn’t alone.
Enter my favorite: Farscape. Oh Farscape how I love you. May I count the ways. First off it was made in conjunction with Jim Henson studios so some of the aliens aren’t just people with goofy ridges on their foreheads (I’m looking at you Star Trek) but actual puppet creatures, and I don’t mean felt Kermits, I mean Dark Crystal Skeksis type monstrosities. Which is awesome. Full stop. Also it’s made in Australia, so aside from the main character most everyone has a slight Aussie vibe (even a few who are trying to sound like they aren’t unfortunately).
Plus it’s got a lot of things that the casual sci-fi dork will recognize immediately: there’s a Worf character. By that I mean there’s a tall alien warrior who looks really mean but is as loyal as Chewbacca. Most shows of this type have one. Deep Space Nine didn’t but that’s why they imported Worf himself as soon as he was made available. In fact Game of Thrones even has one by way of Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa who also played a Worf like character on Stargate Atlantis). In Farscape? His name is Ka D’Argo (sounds familiar right), and like Worf he is tall, gets angry easily, has a bunch of weird bulges on his face and despite the fact that everyone else uses laser guns he carries around a bladed weapon. Unlike Worf D’Argo has an eight foot long venomous frog tongue that he shoots at enemies to knock them out.
This detail (the eight foot tongue) is what sets Farscape apart from the other wannabes. It’s weird. Really weird. Sometimes the weirdness is hard to follow but if you’re one those jaded nerds for whom Star Trek though wonderful in many ways is just too vanilla, or for whom Firefly is sweet but far too short, then look no further. I don’t want to give away too much about the show because falling face first into it is part of the fun. When I first started watching it when it aired on Friday nights (that’s right, in true nerd form I would stay home to watch this on Friday night (who am I kidding I had nothing better to do)) I had no clue what was going on. But once I got into it, the habit got hard to kick.
Plus, if you enjoy that righteous feeling of betrayal by the big network execs, Farscape will fill that void too, since it was also cancelled before its time, ending on a cliffhanger at the end of the forth season. And then, just when the cancellation inspired rage is stewing at premium heat, let yourself be vindicated by the three hour miniseries The Peacekeeper Wars that is not unlike Firefly’s own resurrection on the big screen.
But what happened to shows like this? Where are the great sci-fi operas of today? Farscape began (1999-2003) at the tail end of these glory days and as I stated above, suffered the same fate as many of its ilk. Snuffed out. Stargate succumbed as well, with a cancellation after a two season run of Stargate Universe (2009-2011), its third iteration of the franchise after SG1 and Atlantis. Even mighty juggernauts like Star Trek met doom during this time with the cancellation of Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005).
Maybe it’s just in the genes. The original Star Trek, after all, was cancelled after 3 seasons. Or maybe our taste for stunning special effects has propelled production budgets out of a reasonable range. But I would never posit the argument that people aren’t interested. If you disagree and think shows about spaceships suck, just look at how well received Guardians of the Galaxy was. There’s a market for shows in space but nobody wants to front the cash.
Also look at how well received the new Doctor Who has been. Of course Doctor Who benefits from a freedom that many of these other shows have difficulty affording. Doctor Who celebrates its corniness and escapes set piece constraints by being able to set its adventures anywhere they want. Sure they could set it on an alien world, but they could also set it in suburban London. And they can do either one without audience dissent.
And Doctor Who is really the only one peddling the potion we all want. Since there’s no Trek, Stargate, Farscape, Earth 2, Andromeda, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or even Futurama, if you want adventures that are out of this world the Doctor is the one who’s going to give them to you.
It’s interesting that Doctor Who hasn’t inspired any knock offs. I mean that’s kind of what happened in the 90s with outer space shows. They built on each other. Star Trek The Next Generation, in my mind is the progenitor of the type. Then comes Babylon 5 which was set aboard a space station and had a clear continuity from episode to episode with plot lines that unfolded over the course of seasons. Star Trek obviously wanted in on that action and created Deep Space Nine which exemplified these qualities.
But Doctor Who doesn’t seem to be inspiring other shows about either space or time travel. Granted there is the show Continuum which features time travel as a plot point, but for the most part the characters travel through time a total of one time at the very beginning of the first episode and spend the rest of the three seasons stuck here in the two-thousand-teens.
One difficult aspect of science fiction shows like the ones I mentioned above is that they can be inaccessible to casual viewers. I, Aidan dork-master-general Rich, who prides himself on being a total loser who watches crap like this all the time can find some of these shows difficult to get into. But with today’s viewing formats changing how we consume our mindless entertainment it’s far easier to get caught up. Getting dropped into season three of Farscape is a recipe for disinterest. Unless of course you have Netflix. So we’ve conquered a big part of the accessibility problem.
Anyway, I just wanted to put it out there. If you want a show set in space I will drop what I’m doing and write you one. Seriously guys I got lots of ideas. And I also posit that the ground is fertile and ripe for a dorky space show. We’d be the only game in town, more or less. The ratings would be ours!