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?
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.)