It’s difficult for any show to make it passed the pilot stage of production, let alone finish the first season on a high note, but science fiction shows have it particularly rough. The required budget for a sci-fi show to do it right is much higher than any other type of show, except for perhaps “Game of Thrones” or “Mad Men.” And even though the stigma that sci-fi shows are only for geeks and nerds has been lessening, it is still very powerful, greatly limiting the audience that the network desperately needs to justify the heightened budget. The biggest challenge however is that sci-fi shows ask the viewer to take a lot of leaps with the mythology and the setting, and accept nearly all of what they see at face value, which can sometimes be just a bit too much.
In a world divided between mythology and episodic narratives…
Dealing with mythology has been the downfall of many sci-fi shows. In the best case scenario the mythology that the writers have conceived will bring nuance to the show, plumbing the depths of whatever themes they want to explore, while also allowing for great character work and an epic plot. As it almost always happens though, mythology leads to density, especially when it crosses seasons and viewers must have a meticulous knowledge of what came before. Sometimes a “previously on” isn’t enough.
“Lost” is a great example of this. So much of the mythology was seeded in seasons two and three, everything from Dharma to Jacob’s cabin to the numbers, that when it came time to wrap everything up even I, a die hard “Lost” fan, couldn’t remember much of what had come before. The other problem that having a deep mythology brings is that it can become incredibly unwieldy, just like it did on “Lost.” Another great example is “The X-Files” because by the time the show wrapped pretty much nothing about it’s mythology made a lick of sense. One mysterious government agency gave way to another, and there were about four different groups of aliens running around.
So what’s the solution? In theory an episodic format should be the saving grace for sci-fi shows, whether completely episodic like “The Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits,” or “Night Gallery,” or more in the vein of early “Fringe” and “The X-Files” episodes. The writers could still create some excellent characters, though their arcs would be much more contained and slower paced, and by having a Monster of the Week you can provide quick and effective thrills without having to worry about how that story is going to fit into the show two seasons from then.
…essentially no one wins.
So why aren’t there more episodic sci-fi shows instead of mythology heavy hour long dramas like “Flashforward,” “The Event,” and “Zero Hour” (scoff scoff)? “The Twilight Zone” was a huge success, running for 152 episodes, and it was completely episodic.
It’s because of us, the consumer. Shows like “Lost” have shown us how grand a sci-fi show can be, and how deep a mythology can be. The problem is that “Lost” started losing viewers like crazy once it dove headlong into the mythology. “Fringe” did the same thing. For most of it’s first season it operated as a Monster of the Week procedural but the fans wanted more mythology to keep them interested. But once the mythology was introduced only the die hard fans stayed because keeping track of everything was too much for the casual viewer. “Fringe” was going to lose viewers either way. Mythology leads to weak numbers, which leads to cancellation. An episodic structure leads to poor ratings and more mythology, which then leads to poor ratings and cancellation. Sci-fi shows essentially have a designated end date after only a season or two. Any show that goes on for longer either has some incredibly dedicated fans, a small budget, or award winning performances.
What do we want? Everything as long as it’s good. When do we want it? Now, as long as it makes sense!
There’s no easy way to make sci-fi shows popular. The market is too picky. What we as the viewers need to do is roll with the shows. If a new property is really good, but wants to stick to an episodic structure then we should let it, instead of clamoring for more mythology, especially if the show is good enough to not require it. And if a show wants to jump right into a deep and involving mythology then we should commit ourselves to that mythology from the get go. The only way sci-fi shows are going to thrive is if we give back to the shows just as much as they give to us.