Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent article on io9 about what happened to all the gritty space opera that I spent most of the last decade being wary of.
I’m generally suspicious of articles that try to paint the 2000s as some sort of pinnacle of science fiction on television, as it struck me as the decade when sci-fi shows tried to stop being science fiction. But I was as happy as anyone when I saw shows that paid serious attention to physics and using space to tell complex human stories, so an article about the Unfulfilled Promise of the period works for me.
Anders is right to note that sci-fi’s darker turn was a valid reaction to the more superficial themes of the ’90s, though I’m not sure what her problem is with pastels. And her analysis of how the post-9/11 era hijacked the genre explains a lot of the stuff that bothered me at the time; it took me most of Battlestar Galactica‘s run to shake the feeling that the show was trying to be 24 in space. But the passage that really sold me on the article came toward the end, when she describes how gritty space opera ran its course:
So at some point, gritty space opera was bound to stop being a challenge to the status quo, and just become… the status quo. What’s sad is that we haven’t seen a wave of “reconstruction” in mass media space opera, outside of J.J. Abrams’ Trek and a few other things.
This is what really concerned me about the 2000s. Fundamentally, I just don’t buy the idea that humanity is doomed to destroy itself, and while I value dystopias as much as the next guy I’d rather not see one in every single show. Positive role models still have value, too.
Some of the later ’90s programs, like Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1, seemed to grasp this idea perfectly. Our heroes would screw up a lot, and things got messy, but we ended up in a better place than we started. In shows like Firefly and BSG, I saw this worrying kind of backsliding toward the fatalism of the 1970s, coupled with the idea that all future technology needs to look like an obsolete version of the stuff we have now.
What I really miss, though, is the sense of wonder that science fiction used to have, and which gritty sci-fi was usually too cynical to bother with. The overarching mystery of BSG‘s “God” was easily the most underdeveloped element of the show, and most of its contemporaries didn’t even bother to try.
And the saddest thing is that the genre seemed to run out of steam just as it was starting to correct itself. Caprica did a great job of exploring issues associated with identity and virtual reality, and the thing I loved most about Stargate Universe was that it actually took time to point out how incredible the universe is, and how awesome flying around in it would be, even if the rest of your life was kind of a nightmare.
I think the real problem with gritty space opera was that it never got much of a chance to grow. I’ve always had reservations about Firefly, but I think most of them stem from the fact that the show never got time to find its footing. BSG stumbled a couple of times during its run, only to come back stronger. If Star Trek: The Next Generation had ended after nine episodes, or two seasons like SGU, it wouldn’t compare very favorably either. So maybe what space opera really needs to fulfill its promise is sustainable revenue stream.