When Battlestar Galactica aired its first regular-series episode 10 years ago, there were science-fiction TV shows and fantasy TV shows, but you wouldn’t quite call any of them “popular.” Lost was halfway through its first season, but Lost then was only barely a science-fiction show—years away from time travel and alternate timelines and immortal eyeliner and magic lighthouses with magic mirrors.
A decade later, genre television practically is television. The Walking Dead brought football ratings to the zombie apocalypse. Game of Thrones taught normals how to pronounce “Daenerys.” American Horror Story and The Strain push dark fantasy as Twitter fuel. Once Upon a Time transmogrifies Disney branded fairy tales into family fun; Sleepy Hollow transmogrifies
Superheroes on television used to be animated on Saturday morning or badly acted in syndication. Now there are networks building empires out of superpowered characters—or, in ABC’s case, the characters who occasionally get to hang out with the superpowered characters. Even CBS, the mom-and-dadliest of broadcast networks, is learning to love the weird stuff, building a summer schedule around Under the Dome and Extant.
If you’re like me—if you grew up watching The X-Files and Star Trek reruns and even colorful dross like M.A.N.T.I.S. and Strange Luck and Deadly Games—then you can recognize that this is a boom time for genre television.
And it’s also, weirdly, an empty time.
Battlestar Galactica was a show about space battles and sexy robots and cool people wearing cool uniforms. But Battlestar Galactica was also a show about humanity. And not just in the abstract “What does it mean to be human, man?” way. Battlestar Galactica was a show about suicide bombers and military overreach, a show that constructed whole episodes around provocative ideas and then pushed that provocation past the breaking point: Torture and abortion, security vs. liberty.
Showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his writing staff liked to root Galactica in military-political history—there’s a throwaway scene in one episode where Chief Tyrol quotes a Mario Savio speech; there’s a third season episode that some people hate and I love where Tyrol leads a Marxist-proletarian uprising. But Galactica had a way of turning the screws on contemporary America. (Last year, in the midst of the Ferguson nightmare, a quote by Commander Adama started making the rounds.)
It’s wrong to reduce a TV show to its themes. And genre fiction doesn’t need to be about anything. If you wanted to generalize widely, you could say that science-fiction/fantasy runs in two directions: Stuff that’s secretly about our world, and stuff that’s about worlds we could never conceive. Both approaches are valid: Room for Heinlein and Star Wars, room for writers who use robots as metaphors and room for writers who use robots because robots are cool.
But 10 years later, doesn’t it feel like genre television got popular at the precise moment that it stopped asking any provocative questions? The Walking Dead has a set-up that’s not miles away from Battlestar Galactica, but after a mopey couple of seasons of asking dull questions (“Should we go on living?”) and then responding with dull answers (“He talked about the deer!”) the show reconfigured itself as a low-fat action-fest. I love the new Dead, but you can recognize the lowered ambition every time the show trots out a new blackhatted bad guy (the Governor, Officer Dawn.) And if Game of Thrones ever flirts with topicality, it’s usually an accident, and a horribly misbegotten accident at that.
Some of this, I think, is the residual influence of Lost, a show that seemed to provide a roadmap for mainstreaming weird stuff by, essentially, making it as not-weird as possible. Shows like FlashForward and The Event were turned bargain-Twilight Zone ideas into high-gloss procedurals. The new crop of genre shows is generally a lot better. But there’s a weird reductiveness, an adolescent “Get to the good stuff, awready” emptiness. Sleepy Hollow features frequent appearances by the actual Founding Fathers of America…and turns them into the Jedi Council. True Blood started out as a freefloating postmodern Civil Rights treatise, but it kept piling up supernatural elements on the way to a weirdly conservative final act.
There’s a weird strain of conservatism underlying all the Marvel shows, too. Agents of SHIELD seemed to be raising its game last season, when it suddenly revealed that the titular omnipresent all-powerful organization had been infiltrated by bad guys. But that revelation didn’t have quite the effect you expected. The show ultimately seemed to argue that the only problem was that the wrong people were in charge. At no point can the show ever ask the obvious question: Maybe it’s a bad idea to have an omnipresent all-powerful organization?
Maybe you think genre shows don’t have to ask hard questions. They don’t; but shouldn’t they? At the beginning of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons were a monolithic all-encompassing evil. But the central drama of the show was how, as time passed, our perspective on the Cylons—and on our own heroes—kept shifting. No other genre show on the air today has managed a moment like Galactica managed in “Pegasus.” To that point, the Cylon Six models (as played by Tricia Helfer) were femme fatale Hitchcock-blondes; but the first time we meet the Six named Gina, she’s beaten and battered, with implications of all manner of abuse. The Cylons kept getting more human; compare that to The Walking Dead, which has turned its characters into numb undead killing machines.
Of all the genre shows of the last decade, Fringe came closer than anyone to Galactica‘s ethical complexity—especially in the reality-hopping third season. But Fringe ultimately settled for a safer good-and-evil showdown: Nobody would ever argue that the Observers had their good points. In fairness, you could argue that Battlestar Galactica followed a similar trajectory: The final sequence of episodes trended weird and religious. But even toward the end, Battlestar could still cough up an hour of slipstream morality; the mutiny two-parter is one of the darkest final-season plotlines this side of Breaking Bad.
There is hope along the margins. Person of Interest has followed a smarter Lost blueprint, slowly backing up into hard sci-fi territory in its portrayal of a barely-hyperbolized omniscient security state. And after a couple years as a hard-to-find import, Charlie Brooker’s incredible anthology series Black Mirror is the must-watch Netflix binge of the moment. Black Mirror takes a hard look at our weird new hyperconnected era; at a time when most movies and TV shows still can’t figure out how to accurately portray the internet, Black Mirror is practically all alone at the front of the class, making trenchant observations about our contemporary collective madness.
At the risk of sounding pointy-headed, Black Mirror has what pretty much every other genre show on television lacks: Intellectual curiosity. And an unwillingness to ever settle for an easy answer. That same curiosity is at the core of another British genre show—and while Doctor Who is too giddy to ever quite get serious, there’s something intrinsically provocative about a fundamentally non-violent protagonist, always searching for a way to untie the Gordian knot without a sword.
But weirdly, the only shows that barely resemble Battlestar Galactica now are historical, not fantastical. The Americans stars Soviet spies who think Reagan’s a madman—and imagines a proto-Guantanamo CIA that’s already beyond the rule of law. Weirdly, the real inheritor of the legacy of Battlestar Galactica might be the History Channel’s Vikings, a soapy sword epic that keeps evolving into a meditation on the clash of civilizations. (The Vikings are ultraviolent raiders, but they’re also hippie-liberal progressives; the Christians are law-abiding folk who also vibe fascist.)
It will always be hard to live up to Battlestar Galactica, an action-packed space opera that was also a slice-of-modern-life political drama. Syfy tried to recapture the show’s magic twice: first with Caprica, a weird wannabe-treatise on artificial intelligence and digital life that never quite cohered as drama; then with Blood & Chrome, an all-spacefight prequel that never even got past the pilot stage. Last year, Syfy more or less apologized for an era of lighthearted escapist fantasies that didn’t even try to live up to Battlestar Galactica‘s example. But it’s not all Syfy’s fault. Genre television has never been more popular; has it ever been less interesting?
Thoughts? Frustrations? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly mailbag.