A History of Television Space Opera – Part 2: Generations and Universes

The post-Trek 1970s saw a dearth of notable SF TV series but did produce the first incarnation of Battlestar Galactica (USA 1978-79), a Star Wars inspired tale of conflict between a dispossessed fleet of refugees and the robotic Cylons in a mash-up of Mormon and Greek mythology.  Largely, some might say justly, overshadowed by its hugely popular reincarnation beginning in 2004, this first foray for the Colonial battlestar is, despite some hackneyed plotting, unreconstructed gender attitudes and occasionally appalling dialogue, a creditable attempt to bring something new in science-fiction to a mass audience. The series also benefits from the use of motion-control camera techniques, pioneered by Lucasfilm for Star Wars, which brought a fresh dynamism to the (oft-reused) effect shots.

1979 also saw the return of Buck Rogers to television, about which I have nothing more to say other than ugh! (Maybe it wasn’t really all that bad. I liked Hawk, he had a really cool ship, and feathers for hair. No, I stand corrected, it was awful).

In Britain the only notable space opera was the distinctly dystopian Blake’s 7 (UK 1978-81). Conceived as an anti-Star Trek by its creator, Dr Who writer Terry Nation, Blake’s 7 charted the ultimately doomed efforts of a group of freedom fighters to bring down a tyrannical Terran Federation and features one of the bleakest endings of any television series: everyone dies except the villain, and no, they don’t miraculously get resurrected later on. They died, the bad guys won, that’s it. Whilst Blake’s 7 was popular, running for three years and attracting a considerable cult following, it suffers from the fault common to most British SF TV; a basic lack of money needed to produce impressive visual effects, only overcome with the advent of the resurrected Dr Who in 2005.

The 1980s saw a resurgence in the fortunes of space opera with the coming of the first Trek continuation series Star Trek: The Next Generation (USA 1987-94) which in turn spawned Deep Space 9 (USA 1993-99), Voyager (USA 1995-2001) and Enterprise (USA 2001-05). The advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation engendered an upsurge in sci-fi fandom which eventually reached an as yet unseen, and oft derided pitch. The utopian ethos of Roddenberry hadn’t been lost to the Trek-verse in its latest incarnation but, after a somewhat uneven first season, TNG brought a new depth and complexity in both plot and character in which continuity and cohesive world-building became much more important. Picard and co were on the whole a more cerebral lot than Kirk’s cosmopolitan space-sailors, although they still found plenty of opportunity to let rip with the odd photon torpedo or engage in hand-to-hand combat, a form of conflict that somehow continued into the ultra-advanced 23rd century.

Deep Space 9 proved to be the darkest Trek series to date, drawing inspiration from the political uncertainties prevalent at the end of the Cold War and eventually featuring a huge interstellar conflict between the Federation, now allied with the Klingons and Romulans, and the invading Dominion. Even darker in tone was the non-Trek television epic Babylon 5 (USA 1994-98), the story of a space station destined to play a central role in a cataclysmic galactic conflict. Created and mostly written by J. Michael Stracynski, the future envisioned in Babylon 5 was far removed from Roddenberry’s optimism; future earth is as poverty stricken and socially divided as ever and humanity is but one of several competing cultures, none of which are engaged in a grand mission to civilise the galaxy. Babylon 5 also stands as a landmark in television history as it was the first regular series to feature entirely digital effects, allowing for a new level of visual spectacle and obliging other series to follow suit. The last two seasons of Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 feature space battles the equal of any SF cinema offering to date.

Star Trek, in common with most genre TV shows of the period, was almost entirely episodic in nature; each episode is a self-contained story and the audience needs minimal knowledge of the background scenario of the series to understand the plot. Later shows were to incorporate an ‘arc storyline’; an underlying plot that is revealed gradually over the course of the series until a dramatic resolution in the ‘season finale’, a trait apparent in space opera and other genre series since the 1990s. However, network pressures tend to ensure most shows lend themselves more easily to casual viewing than the “televisual novel” offered by Babylon 5 over the course of 110 episodes which, by its final season, was often baffling to audiences unfamiliar with its ‘universe’.

The series ‘universe’ is a convention of the space opera which has become more important with the growth of arc storylines; the concept of the show taking place within its own world of characters, societal conventions, history and technology. This development has been key to the enduring popularity of the genre with fans documenting the various details of each universe published via a plethora of unofficial fanzines and websites. Fan interest in the wider setting of each show was also a considerable marketing boon, as shown in the success of numerous tie-in novels and text books like the Klingon Dictionary and Enterprise Technical Manual as well as several computer games.

However, the comparative success of the Star Trek spin-offs, and a universe expanding further with every episode, eventually proved to be the series’ undoing. By the time Star Trek: Voyager (mainly notable for featuring a female captain and standing as a testament to the power of fan loyalty which can keep even mediocre television on air longer than it rightly deserves) had come to the end of its run, script-writers had so exhausted the creative potential of the Trek-verse they felt obliged to go back in time for Star Trek: Enterprise, effectively a period drama set within the Trek-verse charting the early days of human space exploration. Enterprise struggled on for four seasons, covering 98 episodes, but consistently poor ratings eventually forced its cancellation in 2005, despite a vociferous fan-led campaign to save the show. Star Trek as a television phenomena was over, confined now to tie-in novels and fan-fiction, but TV space opera was about to receive a welcome, if sadly short-lived, shot in the arm courtesy of Buffy-maestro Joss Whedon. Firefly was about to take off, and it was, indeed, shiny.

One response to “A History of Television Space Opera – Part 2: Generations and Universes

  • RO

    Wagon Train to the Stars, huh? Was not aware of that that little gem. Doesn’t flow much off the tongue.
    Wow, I got a theoretical for the classroom. “With Mr. Peabodys’ WayBack Time Machine, go back to the 1960’s at any point in the Timestream, and keep the Origional Title of Star Trek from being changed.” How would you accomplish this? What would be the effect on future events ? On Science itself? Society? What would we call the Trekkies…..

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