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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.

A History of Television Space Opera – Part 1: Star Trek – Birth of a Genre

I’ve recently been going over some old essays I wrote when studying my Open University course in film and televsion history and thought I’d post my (heavily revised to remove the boring academic bits) essay on the history of space opera. Updates to follow as and when.

Science fiction television began life in 1949 with the broadcast of Captain Video on the US DuMont Channel, soon followed by the likes of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, Space Patrol and Buck Rogers, cheaply made shows featuring fancifully designed rocket ships, mad scientists and killer robots, all owing a considerable debt to the Flash Gordon cinema serials of the 1930s. In time ‘space opera’ was overtaken by ‘horse opera’ as the dominant genre on US television with Gunsmoke the first show to earn the title ‘longest running series on television.’  By the late 1960s the only notable SF series on air were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, both produced by Irwin Allen, whose output had become so risible that audiences booed when his name appeared on the credits of his latest show The Time Tunnel when it was previewed at the Cleveland Tricon of 1966. However, the fortunes of television sci-fi where about to change forever thanks to a former US Air Force and LAPD officer turned TV producer: Gene Roddenberry.

Star Trek was first broadcast on 8 September 1966 and ran for three seasons comprising 79 episodes. Roddenberry, whose writing credits included Dr Kildare and The Naked City, pitched the series as a ‘space western’ with the working title Wagon Train to the Stars, allegorising the exploration of space with the exploration of moral and existential problems. After commissioning network NBC rejected the pilot episode The Cage for being ‘too cerebral’, Roddenberry’s produced Where No Man Has Gone Before, using the same sets and special effects as the original pilot but with a new cast. William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk replaced Jeffrey Hunter’s Christopher Pike as Captain of the USS Enterprise and Leonard Nimoy’s ultra-logical alien Spock took over first officer duties from the disconcertingly female Majel Barrett. This less thoughtful and more action oriented tale of a Star Fleet officer obtaining dangerous god-like powers only to be defeated by his own hubris, and Kirk’s right hook, was enough to convince NBC to commission a full series.   The series proper brought the addition of DeForest Kelly as Dr McCoy and the establishment of the regular, deliberately cosmopolitan cast, which featured a Scot, a Russian, a Jamaican and a Japanese amongst others, however, Kirk and other senior officers remained reassuringly white, American and male.

Most episodes are ‘three-handers’ focusing on the interaction between Kirk, Spock and McCoy,  Roddenberry later explaining that the three leads were a means of taking “the perfect person and divid[ing] him into three parts, I could have the administrative, courageous part that would be the captain; the logical part who is the science officer (Spock) and the humanistic part with the doctor.”

Gender is a particular point of interest in the series. The many conquests of Captain Kirk reveal a less than progressive attitude to women. Female Star Fleet officers tend to be confined to secretarial duties. Although Lt. Uhura has plenty of dialogue, and has a place in history as the first regular female black character on television, her role as communications officer requires no authority.   In Who Mourns for Adonais? Kirk bemoans the fact the one of his female officers will “find the right man and off she’ll go, out of the service.” Clearly, women of the future are expected to put family ahead of career.

Roddenberry’s desire to make Star Trek break new ground led him to recruit a stable of established SF writers which brought a creative richness to the series, although each episode followed the standard three-act structure which had evolved since the 1950s to accommodate the demands of commercial television and continues into the present day. A pre-credit ‘teaser’ sequence introduces an initial mystery or problem requiring resolution followed by a post-credit first act which provides an explanation for the situation and invariably ends with a twist or surprise. The second act will contain the bulk of the story and most of the action, usually culminating in a cliff-hanger before the commercial break after which the third act will provide a resolution and a closing scene which is either poignant or humorous depending on the tone of the episode. In terms of thematic content Star Trek episodes tend to fall into three broad categories: the ‘parallel earth’ storyline, the ‘monster of the week’ episode and the ‘first contact’ situation, enabling a variation in formula which ensured the series rarely repeated itself and provided a wide-ranging basis for exploring disparate themes and issues.

In ‘parallel earth’ stories the crew encounter a planet basically identical to earth that has ventured along a different historical path, explained by the entirely fictional “Hodgkins Law of Parallel Planetary Development”. These stories offer the greatest scope for expanding upon Roddenberry’s utopian vision, charting the point at which human development can be said to have gone wrong somehow. In the case of Bread and Circuses the Roman Empire has continued into the 20th century by suppressing the “words of the Sun”, revealed in the closing scene as “the Son… the Son of God.” In The Omega Glory a tribe of blond-haired savages, the “Yangs”, fights a war of annihilation with an Asiatic race of villagers, the “Cones”, on a planet once almost destroyed by biological and chemical warfare. Eventually the “Yangs” are revealed as “Yanks” and the “Cones… Communists.” Spock concludes: “The parallel is almost too close, Captain. It would mean they fought the war your Earth avoided.”

‘Monster of the week’ episodes, typically the most action packed and often incorporating mechanical as well as biological threats, were generally ship-based and consequently display a considerable Hornblower influence, most notably in The Doomsday Machine which features the hero stranded on a damaged vessel and a deranged captain forcing his crew into mutiny, both staples of Forrester’s maritime adventures. ‘Monster’ stories also provided a basis for exploring fears of technology, particularly in The Ultimate Computer; a Frankenstein like tale of an unhinged scientist who has created a computer capable of commanding a starship. Naturally, Kirk’s suspicion of the machine proves well founded when it fails to distinguish between fiction and reality during a wargame and goes on a killing spree.

‘First contact’ stories tend to be the most allegorical as the Enterprise encounters a previously unknown alien race and is required, the Prime Directive commanding non-interference in alien cultures not withstanding, to correct some basic flaw or injustice in this new culture. In The Apple an entirely content, but socially stagnant, tribe of primitives are ‘freed’ from the yoke of an all-powerful computer they have come to worship as a god. “You’ll learn to care for yourselves,” Kirk assures them. “With our help. You’ll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves… You’ll like it, a lot.”

Although the concept of the false god is a recurring theme in Star Trek, Roddenberry’s future is still a Godly one. The practice of religion is invisible in Federation society but the Judeo-Christian ethic is clearly going strong, as Kirk tells the lonely god Apollo in the Von Daniken-esque Who Mourns For Adonias: “We have no need of gods. We find the one quite sufficient.” Kirk’s attitude is an expression of popular religion in 1960s America, when atheism was still a rarity and would have found little welcome in a nationally networked TV show, rather than a valid speculation on the future of spirituality.

This preoccupation with contemporary concerns led Star Trek to address issues prevailing during the cold war, the most interesting example being the season two episode A Private Little War where Kirk discovers the once peaceful social balance between villagers and hill people on an Eden-like planet has been disturbed by the Klingons who have provided the villagers with flint-lock muskets. The Klingons were introduced in the first season episode Errand of Mercy where a peace treaty had been forced on both the Federation and the Klingon Empire by the God-like Organians in order to prevent all-out war. Barred from direct military confrontation the Klingons have adopted a policy of interference in undeveloped cultures to expand their empire. Kirk faces an ethical dilemma of arming the hill people in order to preserve “the balance of power” despite their ingrained pacifism. This episode contains a direct reference to US military involvement in Vietnam “the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent”, where the Tet offensive was raging at the time of broadcast. Although clearly reluctant, in the final scene Kirk orders Scotty to build a hundred flint-lock muskets for the hill people: “A hundred serpents… Serpents for the garden of Eden.”

An episode like A Private Little War can be read as at best neutral and at worst supportive of US intervention in Vietnam but other episodes show a more ambivalent attitude to the tenets of cold war philosophy. In The Doomsday Machine the Enterprise encounters a monstrous robotic vessel destroying entire star systems. Kirk deduces this was once “A weapon built primarily as a bluff. A weapon so strong it could destroy both sides in a war. Something like the old H-bomb was supposed to be.” In the end the Doomsday device is itself destroyed by a derelict starship which has itself been turned into the equivalent of an H-bomb, as Kirk says: “probably the first time a such a weapon has been used constructively.”

Roddennberry certainly deserves credit as the main creative force behind Star Trek and its basic premise of a united humanity engaged on a civilising mission to the galaxy. However, many of the series’ most enduring elements, such as the Klingons and the Prime Directive, were the work of Line Producer Gene L. Coon, credited for making the world of Star Trek more cohesive and consistent as well as injecting a much needed sense of humour.

Coon’s departure before the end of the second season is seen by many fans as the point at which the show’s quality began to deteriorate, the third season being widely considered the worst of the run, featuring series nadir The Way to Eden, a conservative allegory on the dangers of counter-culture gurus and hippydom. As quality diminished so did audiences and Star Trek’s third season was its last. Whilst the threat of cancellation halfway through the first season had provoked a large-scale letter writing campaign which convinced NBC the show was worth saving, there was no such effort this time.

Whilst Star Trek certainly presented an idealised society it was a futuristic version of 1960s America rather than a utopian vision of the future. Television historian Rick Worland has argued that the United Federation of Planets was a stand-in for the US-led free world during the cold war with Kirk and his multi-racial crew achieving on the final frontier what Johnson and McNamara failed to do in Vietnam. Star Trek’s cancellation came shortly after Johnson’s electoral defeat but its legacy is perhaps more enduring than Johnson’s social welfare programmes, eventually dismantled under Reagan, as syndication and international sales ensured a global audience of millions. Star Trek was undoubtedly conservative in many respects but it was an optimistic conservatism; the future was bright in Roddenberry’s vision, its brightness becoming more appealing as Nixon faced Watergate, America faced the energy crisis and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Although the popularity of original series Star Trek has only grown in succeeding decades, for much of the 1970s it seemed Space Opera as a mass-entertainment genre had had its day, then a relatively low budget movie called Star Wars changed everything.

Check back for Part 2: Generations and Universes.