Saturday, September 3, 2011

Starship Memories

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, TV shows about traveling the stars in search of trouble were all the rage thanks to the success of the multiple "Star Trek" spinoffs. It stood to reason that if you were in space, you had to have a ship or vessel of some sort, to be able to provide artificial gravity and a breathable atmosphere. No wonder then, that starships and space stations have been so iconic in science-fiction, and many shared names with the television shows and movies they appeared in. Enterprise. Serenity. Red Dwarf. Babylon Five. Deep Space Nine. Voyager. Battlestar Galactica. Bebop. LEXX. Yamato. Andromeda. And they always made for such great visuals, soaring through star fields and nebulas, or blowing up lesser spacecraft not worthy of headlining their own shows.

Now it's 2011 and genre shows have gained in popularity while the price tag for CGI effects have come down considerably. But look around the current television landscape, and there's not a starship or space station show in sight. Syfy's "Stargate Universe" and ABC's "V" were the last ones to spend any significant amount of their airtime away from Earth. The new "Battlestar Galactica," the last big hit for the genre, ended in 2009. "Futurama" still has the Planet Express delivery ship, the UK's "Doctor Who" has his TARDIS, and there are always a few cartoons and anime with a spiffy new spaceworthy vehicle in tow, but the age of the space-based adventure show largely seems to have ended.

During the 90s, I thought that the glut of space adventure shows got a little out of hand, with two "Star Trek" series on the air simultaneously (three if you count the endless "Next Generation" reruns), plus "Babylon 5" and a handful of other syndicated programs. All of science-fiction media tended to get lumped in with them for a while as a result, and I admit I got a little tired of starships. However, I never thought they would disappear to this extent, and I honestly think we're worse off without them. Nearly all the "Star Trek" shows and their imitators were incredibly aspirational, presenting a vision of the future where mankind had largely overcome superficial differences to explore the stars together. Following the lead of the original "Star Trek," they were often the most diversely cast programs on television and would tackle social issues and difficult topics through broader alien encounter parables.

So why have all the starships disappeared? I guess the shows that featured them remain emblematic of a certain period of science-fiction television that was considered more niche and more geek-oriented. While every show I've listed had their loyal audiences, I don't think any of them except perhaps "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at its height, could match the ratings being generated by a "Lost" or a "Heroes" airing on American network television. Softer science-fiction has become accepted as more palatable to the mainstream. So instead of space operas, there are paranormal, supernatural, time travel, and superhero shows in abundance. Also, I've noticed a certain air of pessimism has permeated recent science-fiction, possibly mirroring recent cultural shifts. We're far more likely to see global apocalypses and disaster scenarios these days than visions of utopian human societies. Maybe we're just not in the mood for stargazing.

You have to wonder if it's a coincidence that NASA's shuttle program recently ended, signaling a loss of interest in the space race. It's sad that an era of American space travel has come to a close, but I find it troubling that traveling the stars doesn't even figure into our escapist mass media fantasies anymore. Probably the only subgenre of spacefaring television shows that have increased in popularity recently have been the ones featuring alien invasions like "V" and "Falling Skies." However the way things are going, it seems unlikely that Earthlings will be willing to take the fight to the motherships and home planets any time soon.

But then again, Syfy is going to give another "Battlestar Galactica" spinoff a chance, a prequel about a young Adama titled "Blood and Chrome." And Paramount is sure to launch another "Star Trek" television series soon, especially in light of the success of the 2009 film reboot. And J. Michael Straczynski is intent on recapturing the rights to "Babylon 5." And those crazy "Firefly" fans just can't seem to take no for an answer. It might take a while, but the starships and space stations will find their way back to television eventually. After all, if they ever want to make more hopeful shows about life beyond Earth again, they'll need some transport first.

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