Why Some Shows are Popular—or Not

Science Fiction fans are used to seeing their favorite shows cancelled. Of course, this is not unique to sci fi, and it happens for a number of reasons: money, network decisions, actor availability, etc. As far as sci fi goes, the computer geek and sci-fi geek demographics have a big overlap. Perhaps some shows have had a larger audience than their producers were aware of because the viewers were ahead of the curve in sharing online rather than watching on cable. Whatever the reason, shows disappear and the world moves on.

Or does it? What I find interesting is how many of these shows become hugely popular years, or even decades, after going off-air for ‘lack of Fireflyaudience.’

A semi-recent example would be the much-loved Firefly. It struggled to survive for even one season back in ’02-’03. Ten years later, it has a huge following, a successful movie under its belt, and a 9/10 rating on IMDB.

star trek

Then there’s Star Trek, the benchmark for geekdom for as long as I can remember(when someone calls you a trekkie they don’t usually mean it as a compliment). The original series had low ratings in the 60s followed by a decade of nothing. Since 1979, however, there have been four spin-off series and twelve movies. Twelve. With number thirteen on the way. What once had a cult following in the shadows is not only still alive four and a half decades after it began, but is now fueling a series of blockbusters.

What gives? Though all fiction is a medium for broaching topics that society may not be ready to shine a light on, science fiction is particularly powerful in this regard. It can take us far into the future or create entirely new universes where we don’t have to feel threatened by the politics or social norms that clash with our current beliefs and expectations. This is its strength, and sometimes, maybe, its downfall—at least in the short term.

We love to be feel open minded. We like to see people have their boundaries pushed, but we prefer to do it from the comfortable position where we already have the right answer. This is at least part of what makes historical fiction so popular.

We watch the Tudors and are rather pleased with ourselves, thinking how far we’ve come from those barbaric days. We’re so much more civilized now. We chuckle when the Earl of Grantham at Downton Abbey baulks at his youngest daughter going to a rally for women’s suffrage, and, oh lord, she’s in love with the chauffeur on top of it. What will he do?

Jump ahead to season four. Cousin Rose is having a fling with a black jazz musician. How scandalous! But we would never tell our daughters they couldn’t marry outside of their class or race. We know better these days.

Quick as we might be to judge the close-mindedness of the Crawly family from our modern and superior moral perch, we still squirm when our own boundaries are pushed. This might be where some fiction, and sci-fi in particular, shoots itself in the foot, only to be more greatly appreciated later on.

Star Trek was playing with the rights and wrongs of genetic engineering before scientists fully understood what DNA was. And, sexist though it was, Star Trek wasn’t afraid of the inter-species sex scene (or fade to black…Capt Kirk stretches and puts his boots back on). Not a big deal, you say? This was the 60s don’t forget. Homosexuality was still illegal in most western countries. What would the church or state have had to say about the green woman with a tail? There may not have been outrage but there was at the very least some uncomfortable avoidance—no one watched the show.

smooch

But there was nothing so avant-garde about Firefly. Really? Look closely. Though the whole, outlaw-fighting-for-independence thing might not be new or taboo (it’s how the USA came into existence after all), the only member of Serenity’s crew not considered a criminal by the governing Alliance is the resident prostitute. Also, the anarchistic theme may be common, but I dare say it still makes a lot of ‘patriotic’ people uncomfortable—note how soon after 9/11 the airing of this show was. Where’s that line between freedom fighter and terrorist again? On a more artistic front, the show was specifically criticized for the ‘jarring’ mix of the science fiction and western genres. Ten years later, sci-fi western is a recognized genre.

Inara

What about the sci-fi that survives? Some successfully balance the taboo with the safe and familiar, pushing a little but not too much. Others manage to look like they’re pushing boundaries without actually doing so. Thus, once again, we get to feel open minded without actually being open minded.

Example: Battlestar Galactica. It survived its planned five-year run and was quite popular from the get go. First off, it was a remake, so a bit of a safety net there. Let’s look at some the issues it addressed:

1) Polytheism vs monotheism – old as Zeus. In BSG the villains were the monotheists, where the protagonists, who otherwise resembled typical western society, were the polytheists, but really role reversal only gets you so many points.

2) Are the robots really alive? – Ask Isaac Asimov.

3) Should abortion be illegal? This is certainly a hot-button topic for a lot of people. Though, I would say it has been for so long it’s hardly shocking anymore. People I’ve encountered tend to feel strongly one way or the other and aren’t afraid to say so. They may disagree on which side is black and which is white, but black and white it is. The real squirming happens when we’re in the grey zone, not sure what to think.

4) Finally, when there is unrest in the military-run fleet, guess what the solution is…a democratic election, of course! I mean, I know the Americans run the world and everything, but seriously? Don’t we think politics might evolve sometime between now and the time we’re colonizing planets on the other side of the galaxy?

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good survive-against-the-odds story. I thought BSG was a great show. I loved the characters and the story arcs. It was dark, it was suspenseful, it was awesome. I’m simply pointing out that BSG’s sensitivity to what their viewers would tolerate regarding certain topics was well played. Not all sci fi/fiction goes this way. Nor should it.

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