This week has been busy: deadlines on the book are looming (I've seen marketing copy for it, am expecting edits to hit my inbox shortly), and work on the podcast is progressing. I've got a couple of longer pieces that I'm working on for other sites as well, so the next couple of weeks might be a bit quiet on this front.
This week, I've been watching Star Trek: Lower Decks, and it ties in with a line of thought that I've had recently: what would a modern-day, episodic space opera series look like? Or, what would Star Trek look like if it was founded today?
What does the next great space opera series look like?
Earlier this year, I tore through the entirety of Babylon 5 after I wrote about how it had gotten a bit of a visual upgrade for HBO Max. I've long been a fan of the series since I first saw it while in high school, and ended up writing an essay about its continued relevance for Uncanny Magazine.
This rewatch showed me that the series has really held up over the years since it first began airing in 1993: J. Michael Straczynski has an excellent sense of how the world really works, and in a number of ways, the show feels like a counterpoint to the most optimistic and utopian world that Gene Roddenberry introduced with Star Trek. Babylon 5 is grounded, grim, hopeful, and optimistic all at the same time. And, it’s a fun series: there’s plenty of humor and excitement, new aliens to meet and worlds to explore.
I never really got into Star Trek (although I’ve been enjoying Discovery and Lower Decks), but my formative years were full of shows like Stargate SG-1/Atlantis/Universe, as well as the SCI FI’s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Farscape.
I have a lot of nostalgic love for this era of space opera television, which in my mind stands apart from some of the more recent shows like Syfy/Amazon's The Expanse and Apple's For All Mankind. They're high-concept, in that they they have a fairly straightforward idea at their core: A crew of a spaceship exploring bold new worlds; an astronaut is blasted into a distant galaxy and ends up on a living spaceship; a team of explorers visiting new planets and civilizations through an alien artifact; the last fleet of humanity escapes genocide. They're shows where the episode-of-the-week model fits nicely, because it allows showrunners to play with the same concept in various permutations, and in instances where the show runs for multiple seasons, it allows the characters — rather than the concept — to run the story. Characters like Daniel Jackson, Captain Samantha Carter, Captain Kirk, john Crichton, Aeryn Sun, Malcolm Reynolds, and many others develop over time, and ultimately, make their respective shows memorable.
In the mid-2000s, television began to experience a sea-change: ABC introduced LOST, a science fiction mystery that adopted serialized storytelling for its seasons, and was later followed by Game of Thrones, which adapted George R.R. Martin’s dense fantasy novels into a high-concept serialized drama. We've seen shows like The Expanse, For All Mankind, and Lost in Space follow the same model: tightly-scripted shows in which each season is like a novel.
Serialization hasn't done away with that high-concept era of television: there's been a bunch of shows that I've felt fit that mold, like the Syfy’s channel's Dark Matter, Killjoys, Vagrant Queen, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, and Star Trek: Lower Decks.
This certainly isn't a bad thing: serialization has done wonders for bringing these worlds to life, telling stories that I don't think an episodic model would bring about. They're telling excellent, interesting stories about a wide range of interesting characters, and they've become some of my favorite stories of all.
But I think that what's missing at times is a sense of fun. Game of Thrones and The Expanse, they're excellent, but they're heavy shows. The serialized format makes them easy to blow through in a couple of sittings, but after 7-8 hours of their worlds, I feel a little wrung out, and for that reason, I think there's space and need for returning occasionally to the genre's older format: shows that focus exploring the larger world, seen through the eyes of a small, relatable group of characters.
There are plenty of space opera shows in the works right now: Apple has its big adaptation of Foundation coming this month, HBO Max has a Dune series coming at some point, Netflix has its live-action take on Cowboy Bebop coming in November, Paramount+ has its Halo adaptation coming sometime next year, and there are a bunch of books under option that should make for interesting material for a series, like Gareth Powell's Embers of War, there's an adaptation of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice coming from Kiera Knightly in the works, and a whole bunch more (that list is pretty out of date), all of which may or may not actually get made.
A lot of those projects feel very much like they'll fall into the serialized model, which makes sense: streaming TV budgets and the appetite from viewers feel as though these sorts of projects are inherently pushed toward that style — they're stories with a specific beginning, middle, and end, rather than being driven by that core high-concept idea. Ancillary Justice as a high concept idea might be "a spaceship AI is forced into a human body and works to try and make its way in the world" which is what happens, but that's not really how the book plays out — and shouldn't. The strength of that story is more in Breq's journey, rather than her individual adventures to get revenge.
So what can one of these high-concept space opera shows look like in this day and age?
If there are any key elements of those high-concept shows, you'd want a couple of things:
- A similar high-concept idea: the crew of a space ship explores new worlds; a bounty hunter tries to track down a bounty; a space cop tries to keep order on a distant space station, etc. Basically, a fairly simple premise that you can build a character and world around.
- A recognition of the past, but also a firm eye on the future. We've learned a lot about space in the last fifty years, and I think we're past the time of funny prosthetics on actors. Let's get some really intriguing worlds and aliens out there.
- Some serialization. Stargate, I thought, had a good model: a bunch of standalone episodes, but also a larger arc that guided the character's actions across the season.
- Good characters: this is the lynchpin of any good show: a cast of characters that the audience can fall in love with, root for, and explore the world in.
- Optimism. There's been a lot of gritty and grim shows out there, and there was a piece that I read recently about how Hollywood is looking for the next Ted Lasso — an optimistic show that makes audiences feel good. I feel like science fiction could use the same.
- Finally, pretty visuals. The Hubble Space telescope brings us plenty of stunning images of space. Let's see some of that make it out to these stories.
One way to look at this is to look at what the established franchises are doing. While watching Star Trek: Discovery with my wife a couple of months ago, we noted that the series is certainly a “Star Trek” show, in that it has all the trappings of that world (the organizations, aliens, uniforms, and technologies), there were times when it felt as though it was a science fiction series that had been proposed, but then reskinned with those familiar elements. Star Wars: The Mandalorian feels pretty similar: you could pitch a story about a bounty hunter in space, but when you layer on the world of Star Wars, you bring in a lot of the existing look and feel that fans are familiar with.
This is an area where the history and mythology of a long-running, established franchise — and even established genre — cuts both ways. On one hand, you’ve got the established world and elements that make it up, which provides its storytellers some framework to build up their universe. They don't have to build from scratch, and it helps to set audience expectations.
On the other hand, it can be a constraint: a writer who might have an interesting story that doesn’t quite fit in the world, or contradicts something. Established canon creates an internal momentum.
Another way is to look at what shows have been doing this sort of thing already: the Syfy Channel's Dark Matter and Killjoys were two shows that came out a couple of years ago (as well as Vagrant Queen), which I thought fit this model, even if the network didn't feel as though it was getting the same amount of resources (money) as projects like The Expanse or Nightflyers.
Dark Matter was a fun show with a really great premise: what happens when a group of people wake up on a spaceship without their memories, only to discover that they're actually the worst people in the galaxy? It blended a bit of the serialization that was needed for this type of story along with the character-centric focus that allowed us to follow them through the world. Creator Joseph Mallozzi came out of the Stargate franchise, and I think that shows: we've got a group of relatable characters front and center. (I'm hopeful that his efforts to put together a miniseries to finish out the series will pan out.)
So what might a new space opera series look like? Putting aside entertainment trends and audience preferences, what would a high-concept, fun space opera look like today?
Within the world of big streaming and multimedia franchises, we'll certainly see more coming down the pipeline in the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars — indeed, we've already had a bunch of these shows announced. We've got Star Trek: Strange New Worlds coming next year, which apparently will fit this episodic model to a T, and we've got a bunch of Mandalorian-related shows like Book of Boba Fett, Mandalorian Season 3, Ahsoka, Rangers of the New Republic, Andor, and Kenobi, all of which may have that episodic nature built in to varying degrees (except for probably Kenobi?).
I've also been wondering recently — especially after watching Marvel's What If...? — if we'll see Marvel stand up some sort of cosmic space series. It already has a ton of shows about its superheroes here on Earth, and I can't help but wonder if we'll see a return to space when we get Guardians of the Galaxy 3 or The Marvels in 2022 / 2023, given their roots in space, which have set up a pretty robust world for any number of characters to play around in. There's also apparently work being done on a Stargate revival, which could fit the bill. Hulu / FX are putting together an Alien series that'll start production sometime next year.
Then there's adaptations: I'd pay good money to see someone take a crack at Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and its sequels, because as she noted earlier this year on this newsletter "my books do not have big, chewy plots, so if you're looking for something with a more traditional arc or a big MacGuffin, that's not what you're gonna find here" — which feel perfect for this sort of TV. Other books that might fill that description? Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire / A Desolation Called Peace could do that, as could an adaptation of Marko Kloos's Frontlines series, Martha Wells' Murderbot series, or maybe even John Scalzi's Old Man's War (currently in the works as a movie from Netflix.) There's certainly some possibilities there.
But what about original space opera? What does the next Star Trek look like, something that has the potential to kick off its own franchise on its own merits?
This one's a bit trickier, because it feels increasingly more difficult to launch that original IP. We've seen some originals come out: Apple's For All Mankind (which has earned great reviews and features great storytelling), and Netflix's Another Life (which does neither.) Dark Matter was nominally based off of a graphic novel, as was Vagrant Queen, and neither lasted all that long, and don't have the legs to hold up a bigger franchise.
But there are some other ideas. Netflix is working with Zack Snyder on a space opera film project called Rebel Moon, which comes out of his failed pitch for the Star Wars universe, and which feels like it could be a germ of an idea for a franchise for the streaming service. I could see that being started as a film and built out into a series down the road.
One of the problems with a high-concept idea is that a lot of the good ones are pretty well-worn paths, and the success of any series will depend on the characters and world. Stargates, hyperspace, galactic civilizations, they'll all incur comparisons to the big names.
My personal hope? Let's see what a exploration-type series might look like if you take into consideration some of the latest scientific findings about the state of the universe. Think Alien Worlds: the series, which shows off just how weird the planets of the universe might look like, and build from there: how would a crew of an interstellar ship contend with the challenges of recognizing life, contending with truly alien civilizations, and the trouble that that could bring, without the baggage and established lore that something like Star Trek brings?
That could make for an interesting and exciting story to tune into week after week.
This week has been a busy one, so I haven't gotten a ton of reading time. Currently in the works:
- Chuck Wendig's The Book of Accidents
- Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls
- Stephen Graham Jones' My Heart is a Chainsaw
I haven't gotten too far into those, but what I've read, I'm enjoying so far.
For the last couple of years, the organization behind San Diego Comic-Con has been working to set up a museum for the storied event. I actually met the guy who was supposed to be the curator for it at the con a couple of years ago, but it looks like he's since stepped down. Despite that, and despite the pandemic, it looks as though things are moving along for the project: the San Diego Union-Tribune says that it'll have a soft opening in November 2021, and the full museum will be opened in July 2022.
Comics and Propaganda
Rebecca Onion has an intriguing look on Slate at the format of comic books and the role they sometimes played in providing state-sponsored propaganda to the masses. The interview coincides with a new book on the topic, written by Paul S. Hirsh, who notes that the prevalence of comics in the mid-20th century meant that they were a good conduit to the American public.
"The board had pretty frequent communication with the major publishers cooperating, and they knew that if they were going to print anti-Japanese stories, or stories about Nazi atrocities, they may want to submit it to the board, and they may actually ask the board for assistance scripting it. In some cases, the board would go to the companies and tell them, Please write a story with these characters and this plot. And when that happened, the publishers would submit drafts for editing."
Daniel A Gross has a profile of the ebook lending platform OverDrive and its app Libby in The New Yorker, and it's a good look into how the world of digital content complicates things. Libraries can buy and lend out books, but can't do so in the same way with their digital offerings like ebooks and audiobooks. That's no small thing, given the popularity of those formats during the pandemic. It's a good, enlightening profile.
I'd heard good things about Robert Jackson Bennett's books before I picked up Foundryside and Shorefall, and was blown away by both of those books, set in a world where magic is treated a bit like technology. Shorefall left off on a great beat, and I've been looking forward to seeing how he'll end the series.
According to io9, that ending will come next June. The site announced Bennett's next book, Locklands, which will close out the series. It looks like it'll be an epic conclusion.
In case you missed it, I released this month's book list, which you can read here. This time around has a bit of a new style: I organized them by genre, rather than release date, with the thought being that it might be easier to find stuff if you're looking for something specific. For comparison, here's the same list, organized by release date. Let me know which one you prefer!
The story of Captain Planet
There's a memory that sticks out for me from the summer camp I worked at: a skit at a closing camp fire that was surprisingly deep (for a summer closing campfire skit): it featured one of our counselors dressed up as Captain Planet, beating up litter bugs and people doing really minor stuff, while completely ignoring some industrial-type fellows who were dumping toxic waste and polluting on a massive scale.
That came to mind while I read this neat piece on Grist (h/t to Maddie Stone) by Teresa Chin: the story of how Captain Planet came about. Where a lot of cartoons of the 1980s/1990s had their roots in selling merchandise like toys, Captain Planet had some different origins: "But according to executive producer Barbara Pyle, the show’s success had nothing to do with selling merch. 'Our mission was to inspire and to educate the next generation of environmental activists,' Pyle said. She and producer Nicholas Boxer made it a point to slip as much planetary realness into the show’s fantastical plotlines. In fact, Pyle says many ideas were taken directly from the Global 2000 Report to the President, a 1980 paper commissioned by Jimmy Carter that warned of environmental disaster should policies fail to account for the world’s booming population growth."
William Gibson, literary genius
Jason Guriel has an insightful profile of Neuromancer author William Gibson up over on The Walrus, looking at why Gibson's work was so revolutionary for the science fiction world. A key reason? He drove home the point that science fiction was really about the present, not the future, something that I don't think the genre had fully come to terms with by the 1980s. "As Gibson himself has pointed out, the book was really about its moment. With conspicuous references to plastic surgery, the idle rich, and multinational corporations, the world of Neuromancer and its brethren, the so-called Sprawl novels, was a proxy for the decadent 1980s."
Here's a key passage that I think drives that point home: "That Adidas bag was as stunning, in its day, as a phaser; sci-fi rarely deigned to mention such base details as brands. A year after the publication of “Johnny Mnemonic,” the movie Blade Runner posited a similarly radical (and radically banal) point in one of its most iconic scenes: the hover cars of the far-flung future, when they finally get aloft, will fling themselves past sky-high ads for Coca-Cola."
Given that August is over, I figured I'd round up the posts that went up on Transfer Orbit last month:
- Here's the August 2021 sci-fi and fantasy book list (book list)
- Further reading (subscriber post)
- Booking a cruise to a galaxy far, far away (roundup)
- Inaudible (feature)
- Fiction is powerful (roundup)
- Wartime lessons (subscriber post)
- Faithful adaptations (roundup)
- Building for stories (subscriber interview)
- Ignition failure (feature)
- Right time, right book (roundup)
- Return of the Rocketeer (subscriber post)
That's all for this week. As noted in prior issues, I've got a small pile of things to get out to folks: a couple of interviews (transcribing is slow), a piece about ANOVOS, and some other things. Hopefully, I'll get those out to you soon.
Have a good weekend,