Thursday, January 14, 2010

What happened to Science Fiction in Oz?

When I was growing up in idyllic Cottesloe (beachside suburb of Perth), I fondly remember watching science fiction shows in prime-time like the original Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and my favourite, U.F.O.

Since those halcyon days, science fiction on free-to-air television has been banished to the graveyard shift and is largely an afterthought. Recently, the SyFy channel on Foxtel has sought to redress the balance but every time I check it out I invariably get one of two franchises - Star Trek or Stargate - with all their various off-shoots.

And after the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica I have trouble with what I jokingly call "Prosthetics City" type shows. Let's play spot the actor that just spent 4 -6 hours in a make-up chair to put a coloured ridge on his forehead. Yes, Ronald D Moore has ruined science fiction for me by making it gritty and real. All for the better in my opinion.

I was vaguely aware of shows like Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 but pilots would get a prime-time airing like Star Trek Voyager then disappear, quite literally into the Delta Quadrant of television programming, never to be seen again.

So if it can't get programmed here in a decent time slot what of locally made Australian science fiction television? Well, apart from Farscape which was shot in Sydney, I can't think of a single show!

I find this puzzling for two reasons:

1) Good science fiction always shines a light on current issues and society in a way no other genre can. BSG was quite brilliant in its examination of a raft of issues from terrorism to insurgencies to genocide which would not have been possible in anything other than science fiction.

Has the audience been so dumbed down by years of reality television that they reject science fiction shows as worthy of prime-time viewing?

2) Of the top hundred worldwide box office champs (admittedly unadjusted for inflation), 23 are science fiction films. Audiences flock to see even bad science fiction (Star Wars prequels anyone?) at the megaplexes. Yet on the box it is ratings poison in Australia.

It's a conundrum I don't understand. Sure, those shows back in 70s could be quite lightweight but they certainly transported me to other worlds and into a rich realm of imagination.

Chris and I half-jokingly talk about our ideal television project being a re-imagining of Gerry Anderson's U.F.O., the live action stablemate to the better known Thunderbirds. That show was about aliens coming to Earth to harvest human body parts and the secret organisation, SHADO, that was tasked to stop them.

Aliens, borders, homeland security, illegal immigrants, civil liberties, Patriot and similar acts around the world. Secret organisations. Any resonance with present day issues? Would make a hell of a show.

Putting the rights issue aside (many have tried with Space 1999 being the offspring of one of those attempts), could I ever envisage an Australian network that would back it? Maybe one day ... in the distant future. When Borg technology has salvaged all those lost shows drifting aimlessly in the Delta Quadrant of FTA television ...

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