Let’s be honest, shall we? Television has never been particularly kind to science fiction. Sure, Rod Serling had a good run on “The Twilight Zone” back in the early ’60s. But even some of TV’s most venerated sci-fi series haven’t had a particularly easy time of it. “Star Trek” is as big a pop cultural touchstone as you can find, having launched five TV series and 11 feature films—including J.J. Abrams’ reboot, which hit theaters last weekend. But the original 1966 series never rose higher than No. 52 in weekly ratings and was canceled in the middle of its third season.
Recently, the outlook for sci fi on TV has gotten bleaker. The Sci Fi Channel, seemingly created to air science fiction, has moved away from the genre, relying on programming as unrelated as professional wrestling. In June, the network will change its name to SyFy—which still technically looks and sounds like Sci Fi but offers significantly more wiggle room. At his network’s upfront presentation to advertisers in March, Sci Fi Channel president Dave Howe said he wanted to “build a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand.” Translation: Humans don’t like science fiction.
And, given the numbers for sci fi-heavy TV shows of late, it’s hard to argue. ABC’s “Lost,” for example, has allowed its sci-fi roots to show significantly this season, laying out a mind-bending time travel plotline. The result? Season 5’s two-hour premiere registered 11.4 million viewers—the lowest ever for the show and a full 26 percent lower than Season 4’s debut.
Among the sci fi-tinged shows falling into the “canceled” wastebasket this season were ABC’s time-hopping cop series “Life on Mars” (which managed to add virtual reality and space travel to the rushed series finale), ABC’s humorous animating-the-dead detective series “Pushing Daisies,” NBC’s high-tech revival of “Knight Rider” and NBC’s curious alternate-reality political drama “Kings.” Still on the chopping block is FOX’s Friday night block of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Dollhouse,” both of which posted dismally declining ratings this season. FOX seems committed to edgy sci-fi series, but the network keeps sticking them on Friday night when no one (certainly not the sci fi-friendly 18 to 34 age demographic) is home watching.
Is science fiction just too limiting a genre? Is that why shows like CBS’ “Eleventh Hour” and FOX’s “Fringe” go out of their way to avoid the sci-fi label? Is that why authors like Neil Stephenson now prefer the term “speculative fiction”? Maybe—god help us—SyFy Channel is actually on the right track.
There are flashes of hope. ABC seems to have committed to “Flash Forward,” a series in which everyone on Earth gets a glimpse at their (not so fantastic) future. It’s based on the award-winning science-fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer and it’s produced by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) and Brannon Braga (“Star Trek: Enterprise”). Sounds great, but we’ll have to wait until fall to see if the network gives it more than three weeks to succeed.