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I saw the encounter at Farpoint. I learnt what can happen when things go a little ka-ka. I was there for the dawn of the third age, and the start of the dominion war. I know about the erlenmeyer flask. I remember graduation day, and I understand that if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do. Look upwards, I say, and share the gorram wonders I have seen.

My teenage years seem to have coincided with a remarkable profusion of sf tv, and with an above-average percentage of good sf tv. 'Encounter at Farpoint' aired in September 1990, and from that point on there was always something to watch. Mostly rudely shoved into the 6:45pm slot on BBC2, or ignomoniously dumped on a weekday morning on C4, but they were there, a continuous stream of shows: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Farscape, Firefly...and Twin Peaks, and American Gothic, and Lexx, and Dark Skies, and Stargate and Futurama. I didn't watch all of all of them, and there are plenty more that I missed entirely - but they were there. A golden age?

Maybe.

The most obvious thing about that list is how American it is. Yes, there were UK shows, but not many of them. Doctor Who is not part of the foundation of my fandom. Red Dwarf is there, and Ultraviolet of course, and even the weak BBC offerings like Invasion: Earth - and more recently, there was Russell T Davies' superlative The Second Coming - but to be honest, it's slim pickings. My understanding of media sf is dominated by my understanding of American tv: of network politics and the arcane mysteries of sweeps weeks.

It wasn't like that in the sixties (which seems to me to be the last time there was a comparable burst; what's lasted from the in-between decades except Blake's 7 and Sapphire and Steel?) - back then, the UK produced a whole raft of quality telefantasy, easily enough to match up to the US offerings. For Star Trek, Doctor Who; for Lost in Space, Thunderbirds; for The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, The Avengers and The Prisoner.

I don't know why the nineties were different. A difference in culture? A difference in outlook? Or maybe just a difference in economics. Between them, the American shows changed the nature of the game. Babylon 5 redefined the stories you could tell - finally taking advantage of the breadth of the canvas that tv has to offer - and the The X-Files redefined the level of success you could expect. It's a simplification, of course it is, but I think those two factors ring through the decade, the former giving us Buffy and Farscape - the latter giving us for every hit a plethora of imitators.

But things have changed. The dynasty has ended: the baton that was passed from TNG to B5 to Buffy has fallen to the dust. The cull has happened quite quickly, over the past few years - since 2000, really. The X-Files and Buffy limped to a close. Trek has stagnated. More than that, Farscape and Angel have been cancelled, and the list of stillborns is growing almost too fast to count: Firefly, gone after twelve episodes. Wonderfall taken after four. The networks, perhaps, are starting to suspect that The X-Files may have been a fluke.

There's nothing obvious on the horizon to capture hearts and minds. Over here we've got a new Who, and that's it. Over there, Smallville may be fatally handicapped; every time I think it's going to break free and fly, it falls back to earth with a thud. Dead Like Me? Don't make me laugh (or rather, doesn't make me laugh). Carnivale? It's beautiful and wonderful, but it's a niche taste, and it barely made it to a second season. The market has become more competitive. Reality tv delivers bigger ratings than anything else for lower costs than anything else, and sf, perhaps a victim of its own success, is delivering lower ratings than anything else for higher costs than anything else. Much as they'd love another X-Files - or even the critical acclaim of another Buffy - the networks are getting impatient. And consequently, trigger-happy.

Has it been a golden age, or was it just that I was twelve? We could quibble over definitions, I suppose. If you want 'golden age' to mean that period where the fundamental themes of the form are laid down, you probably have to look back at the sixties again, in which case the nineties are more like the new wave, elaborating the art with wit and sophistication and style. I wouldn't object to that; in fact, I have a theory that Futurama, as a show that can only exist standing on the shoulders of dozens of spandex futures, is symptomatic of the maturity of the form.

In the end, it's hard to say. Maybe everyone feels this way about the tv from their teens. The view from where I'm standing, though, is that the nineties were something special, and that the outlook now ain't that great. Nobody predicts the Next Big Thing, it's true...but in the current climate, I'm not sure it would even have a chance.

(Obviously, there's also another major difference between the nineties and the sixties. I'll talk about that in a separate post, sometime.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wow, you should SOOO be at Plokta.con.. there is a panel on this now..
This is actually something I've been meaning to write up for a while - it comes out of a discussion meeting I ran for ousfg a few months ago. But yes, I saw that on the programme; unfortunately, I'm already busy that weekend.
It wasn't like that in the sixties (which seems to me to be the last time there was a comparable burst; what's lasted from the in-between decades except Blake's 7 and Sapphire and Steel?)

What's lasted is a different question from what's good. And at the moment it's a question we don't have much of an answer to in the case of nineties TV.

Has it been a golden age, or was it just that I was twelve?

I think there's something in the fact that it's the TV you grew up with. There was SF/fantasy TV in earlier years that people watched and liked, but it doesn't always stick around. For example, a lot of the Manchester SF group seemed to be media fans, but the media they were fans of was stuff that appeared way before my time and which I'd never even heard of. I was mystified during many pub conversations, and they frequently had to enlighten me about the TV series under discussion that they'd all watched as kids.

I doubt that at least half of the list of shows you mention will still be being watched and remembered and talked about in another twenty years, by anyone other than those of us who watched them as teenagers anyway. Some might be remembered as important moments in genre television, but they may not maintain an active fandom, or hold a continuing attraction to new viewers. It's a matter of perspective that we don't have yet.
What's lasted is a different question from what's good.


It's related, in that what lasts tends to be good. But yes, certainly, good things get forgotten.
I think there's something in the fact that it's the TV you grew up with.
If for no other reason than I'm now well on my way to becoming a discerning curmudgeon, rather than watching everything available. :)

Some might be remembered as important moments in genre television,

I think at least TNG, DS9, B5, TXF and Buffy are assured of that, which is a pretty decent hit rate.

but they may not maintain an active fandom,

However, I think the odds have changed in favour of continuing fandom. Everything gets released on DVD now, and spinoffery is virtually an artform. Not only that, but there's so much more of those shows, even in their original form. Doctor Who notwithstanding, most sixties shows ran for a relatively short time - but there are 144 episode of Buffy, and a further 100 of its spinoff. More material sustains more fandom, I think.

or hold a continuing attraction to new viewers.

That's a different question. TV rarely gets repeated, and for that reason I've seen next-to-none of many of the sixties shows that I listed. But I'm aware of them as important moments in genre television, nonetheless.

It's a matter of perspective that we don't have yet.

That's true. And yet, and yet...like I said, I think something's changed.
(Sorry for multiple comments, just thought of another point I wanted to make.)

But things have changed. The dynasty has ended: the baton that was passed from TNG to B5 to Buffy has fallen to the dust.

Maybe this is where genre-blurring comes in again. At eastercon there was quite a bit of talk about genre-blurring between SF and Fantasy, and I think this extends to some of the stuff that's happening on TV at the moment. Yes, there aren't any obvious genre shows on the horizon (though, for me, I'm not sure I could ever see them coming anyway) but the doesn't mean that SF/fantasy tropes are dying. The quality of genre TV in the nineties made SF/fantasy more respectable on TV, and as a result more mainstream programmes are picking up the genre baton in unexpected ways.

Six Feet Under, for example, sometimes features dead characters. They might be ghosts, hallucinations, dreams, it doesn't matter. The Sopranos has also featured a highly surreal, Twin Peaks-esque dream sequence. Ally McBeal had dancing imaginary babies, exploding heads, and generally gave the impression of taking place in a parallel universe full of aliens imitating humans. C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation has the scientific mind-set and the heroic technology of SF. Though you cite The Second Coming as genre TV, I think the audience and the TV commissioners will have seen it as mainstream drama rather than fantasy.

What I'm saying is, there's mainstream TV now filling a lot of the niches that genre TV used to have to fill. Personally I think this is a good thing, and look forward to finding more stuff in this vein.
(Sorry for multiple comments, just thought of another point I wanted to make.)

No, multiple comments are good! Not only do they conveniently divide up conversational topics, but they make my post look popular. :)

But things have changed. The dynasty has ended: the baton that was passed from TNG to B5 to Buffy has fallen to the dust.

The quality of genre TV in the nineties made SF/fantasy more respectable on TV, and as a result more mainstream programmes are picking up the genre baton in unexpected ways.

That's a good point, although it's worth saying that like so much of this discussion, I think it only really applies to the US.

Ally McBeal had dancing imaginary babies, exploding heads, and generally gave the impression of taking place in a parallel universe full of aliens imitating humans.

Ha!

C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation has the scientific mind-set and the heroic technology of SF.

Hmm. Not sure about this one; isn't it just being more imaginative about what tv, as a visual storytelling medium, is capable of? I haven't watched it, though, so I could be wrong.

What I'm saying is, there's mainstream TV now filling a lot of the niches that genre TV used to have to fill.

This has sparked another thought. It seems to me that much of the literary prejudice is a transferral of prejudice against crap genre television. 'Star Trek is rubbish, therefore written sf must be more of the same.' Robots and aliens and spaceships, right? So if the acceptance of genre tv is increasing, maybe it will feedback into acceptance of written sf?
Stop showing off in front of your new friends, Niall.

I think there's something in the air. The climate in America's changed and everyone's running around killing anything that looks new and strange and going with what's safe and what sells, so we lose Wonderfalls and gain Who Wants To Marry A Midget?, Marvel ends it's mature title Alias and reboots it as an all-ages title, The Pulse. Their latest stunt is to redraw Stan Lee's scripts for the earl Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But as manga! Bleh. Everything's in lockdown.
Stop showing off in front of your new friends, Niall.

This is for you guys! If I wanted to show off to them, I'd have written about books. ;-)

Who Wants To Marry A Midget?

"And I'm thinking, 'that has to be a made-up show. That has to be a made-up show...right?"
You dismiss 'Doctor Who', yet you speak fondly of 'Invasion: Earth' and 'Encouter at Farpoint'?

You're a sick freak, Harrison, and you need help.

'Encounter' is diabolical. No, really, it is. Second only to the Planet of the Blondes where everyone runs, and the one where the Federation is possessed by slugs.

'I'm sure most of our adventures will be much more exciting!' exclaims Picard at the end of the episode, apparently meaning it enthusiastically.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every fandom thinks it invented snark.

'Encounter' is the only pilot episode I can think of that started the snark before the series had even begun properly. It's that bad.
You dismiss 'Doctor Who', yet you speak fondly of 'Invasion: Earth' and 'Encouter at Farpoint'?

I think you'll find I described IE as 'weak'. And I wasn't speaking fondly of 'Encounter...' so much as I was suggesting it was The Start Of Something. I wanted to use Locutus of Borg as my TNG reference in the opening paragraph, but 'Encounter...' just seemed to fit better, structurally.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every fandom thinks it invented snark.

And a sig is born...
Great post! I agree with a lot of what you're saying and have a similar sense of hopelessness over upcoming schedules. Book talks just makes me feel sad because I haven't read most of the things people talk about ;0)

It's obviously true that TV producers and networks do love a bandwagon (CSI: Outer Mongolia, Law and Order: Parking Offenses Unit). How many of the 90s series owe everything to the success of The X-Files and Star Trek: TNG? Unfortunately I suspect that said golden age is coming to an end because the bandwagon of reality tv shows have rolled in and have the one thing that sf shows have always had difficulty with - dollar to ratings ratio. Although I do wonder whether any of them have considered what's going to happen in 5 years time when they try to syndicate them.

I suspect the golden age owes a lot to the growth of the internet in that time as well. Suddenly being an sf fan gained you so much more than just a regular slot in front of the tv every week. You might be mocked by your school-friends, but there were thousands of people to talk to on the web who revelled in their status as geeks.

There's nothing obvious on the horizon to capture hearts and minds.
I'm holding out some hope for Battlestar Galactica, and there's some mini-series by sci-fi that could be interesting (Farscape at the very least). But you're absolutely right - can you imagine anyone signing up Babylon 5 in the current climate of cancellations?
But you're absolutely right - can you imagine anyone signing up Babylon 5 in the current climate of cancellations?

There are mutterings that new B5-related stuff could be on it's way, but I would have to agree... it would take something pretty spectacular to ignite the fires right now. It will come though, lest we forget Buffy started life as a mid-season fill-in. Stranger things have happened...
Oh, and comment the second:

I don't know why the nineties were different [from the sixties]. A difference in culture? A difference in outlook? Or maybe just a difference in economics.

In the sixties, TV was written with no regard for commercial output. None of the TV shows you mention were driven by the need to tie-in with the sponsor's messages, certainly not so much as they are now.

But more importantly, people who were writing for TV in the sixties had grown up with imaginative radio plays and pulp sci-fi from the forties and fifties. People who wrote for TV in the nineties had grown up with 'Star Wars'.

The rise of the 'golden age' you mentioned coincides with a growing awareness that George Lucas had redefined our genre, and now that we'd all grown up with it, the genre had grown up too. It's perhaps fitting that as he urinates further over the dead body of his own creation with every passing prequel, there is a concurrent decline in imaginative television.
The rise of the 'golden age' you mentioned coincides with a growing awareness that George Lucas had redefined our genre, and now that we'd all grown up with it, the genre had grown up too. It's perhaps fitting that as he urinates further over the dead body of his own creation with every passing prequel, there is a concurrent decline in imaginative television.

Thank you. This has made my week...:D
Oh, Please :D

SF, like the Economy, has booms and slumps. Late 60's/Early 70's, boom: 70's and 80's slump. 90's boom. This is a slump, pure and simple. You're just feeling withdrawal symptoms because first Buffy goes and then they can Angel, but are sensible enough to make sure TV movies can be spun-off...

The trend for Reality TV, *Worldwide*, is going to affect output. There will be, I think, a trend of cloning in the next couple of years, whether it be whole new spin-offs (Galactica) or shows that just lift elements of other shows (Tru Calling) that have been known to be popular. Galactica will, I suspect, trigger a wave of nostalgia for SF Shows We Have Known, but I wouldn't be so quick to decide the Golden Age is over quite so readily. I'm with Geneva on CSI being a SF/Science hybrid, and in that respect 24 is doing the exact same thing. Yes, 24 *is* SF that's trendy, alternate-universe trendy. The AU 'strand' is something I think we could see a lot of on the back of Sky Captain. Thunderbirds could be up for a revival, as indeed could Transformers. There are many possibilities, young padawan...

Oh, yeah, and *anyone* who ignores Who as a serious SF force in this country is delusional and requires immediate medical attention, because if they do it properly the BBC can resurrect a HUGE and infinite stream of possibilities...

Oh, yeah. Hitch Hiker Movie next year...?
I'm with Geneva on CSI being a SF/Science hybrid, and in that respect 24 is doing the exact same thing. Yes, 24 *is* SF that's trendy, alternate-universe trendy.

Yes, 24, how could I miss that out! It's not only AU-ish, but also highly intelligent action-adventure stuff, provides a certain amount of military/surveillance tech for the gadget-o-philes, and has a dash of X-Files-style conspiracy theory in there too.
As I recall, people were saying something not dissimilar in the aftermath of the original Star Trek series being cancelled. We all think the 'golden age' was what we were affected by as we grew up. Me, I can wax as lyrical as you like about the fifties, with Dan Dare in the Eagle (and on Radio Luxembourg), Quatermass on the TV, Forbidden Planet on the movie screens, and a absolute avalanche of great 'Golden Age' SF from Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (and many others)in the libraries and bookshops. All of those things established SF & F as my favourite genre, something I've carried through right to today. The genre carries on: if TV companies back off for a while, then they'll come back when it becomes obvious that SF or Fantasy is still box office in the cinema. Eventually, even the craven-hearted TV moguls (brilliantly described by Terry Pratchett once as shaved orang-outangs in suits) will learn that pulling series after just a few episodes is madness -- that the very best TV takes time to get into its stride, and that expectations of instant success are simply garbage thinking.
Mind you, one has to look past the 90% of production that is crap irrespective of 'golden age' or no.

I think there is also some influence from growing up with it, and experiencing the novelty of it ... I consider most of ST:TNG S1 to be very crappy - largely because the producers were still trying to figure out how to make it work ... and Gene Rodenberry too often remade old ST episodes.

Also, don't think there aren't reality TV cross-overs into Sci-Fi ... as 'Mad Mad House' and other efforts testify.

I think the reality TV wave will pass, because it is already losing its edge to shock, and its formulaic efforts at novelty are becoming all too obvious (even being openly lampooned by MTV 'formula' shows).

That said, I don't know if we will necessarily return to good high-production fiction, especially in the US, for the very market reasons you mention.

If I had to lay bets, I think the US production market will become increasingly Japanese-like ... with a billion+1 integrated production efforts (a new film linked to a TV series linked to toys linked to website linked to games linked to giveaways - coordinated campaign), and a failure rate of 80% considered acceptable as 'strong brands' take hold.

HBO, and BBC, and a few others will continue to make some good niche productions, and they may have their run of mainstream success ... but the STs, Seinfelds, and Friends are probably over for the foreseeable future.
HBO, and BBC, and a few others will continue to make some good niche productions, and they may have their run of mainstream success ... but the STs, Seinfelds, and Friends are probably over for the foreseeable future.

Especially when shows about people having plastic surgery and then competing in beauty contests or building houses when they have no DIY experience seem more popular than sweeping dramas or making your populous think. However, when HBO will throw as much money as they did at 'Angels in America', when Sci-Fi will re-make Dune for the n-th time... there are possibilities.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/archive/2004/04/20/eguillermo.DTL

If you look past the navel-gazing op-ed, this does hit on some salient points. In this case, concerning 'Asian-American' stereotypes.
Insofar as Asian acting opportunities exist in SF - I must say I'm finding the Sci-Fi employment picture horrifically poor for Asian actors.

Be it token Mongolian guy in Conan films, the identical Chinese actor for all Van Damme films, or quota Asian as ST:TNG Mrs. O'Brien/ST:V Harry Kim ...

All that is lacking. Hell, there aren't even heavily make-upped roles for Asian actors.

Grrr...
Maybe everyone feels this way about the tv from their teens.

I think that's a large part of it. Many people of my age think fondly of Blake's 7, which if first seen in adulthood rarely appears to bite.
I saw the encounter at Farpoint. I learnt what can happen when things go a little ka-ka. I was there for the dawn of the third age, and the start of the dominion war. I know about the erlenmeyer flask. I remember graduation day, and I understand that if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do. Look upwards, I say, and share the gorram wonders I have seen.


Clever, very clever.

Actually the whole thing is really very interesting; and much as I'd like to call it overly pessimistic - in truth, I'm not sure that it isn't entirely accurate.
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