Monday, December 22, 2014

The Syfy Channel, Real Science Fiction, and Human Capital

Sharknado isn't science fiction, and neither is Syfy.

That's why the Science Fiction Channel changed its name to Syfy in 2009 - so that it could walk away from a commitment to the genre, and instead program low-grade monster movies, WWE wrestling, and reality shows where Tracy Morgan tries to make people wet their pants.

Now that they've become a textbook case of Fail, they're trying to walk it back. They've started production on The Expanse; they've shot Ascension; they're mounting series like Defiance. Lots of spaceships and aliens. It's even possible - just barely - that they understand why so many science fiction fans were offended by their rebranding.

But there's a problem: The people running Syfy aren't fans, they're TV execs. They know a lot about the complicated craft of creating stories for television, but they don't realize that creating science fiction stories that are compelling, surprising, and logical is just as complicated - and wildly different.

To write a teleplay, you have to understand teasers and trailers, buttons and turning points, act breaks and character arcs; but to write a science fiction story that's worth a damn, you have to understand not only your premise, but all the prior art that has come before it. You have to understand why it makes good engineering sense to hollow out a cylinder and spin it for gravity, as opposed to inventing a mythical artificial gravity device; you have to know not just what might happen at speeds faster than light, but what actually does happen as you approach that speed. The Fermi Paradox, the fossil record, the real limits of time dilation (as opposed to time travel) - you should be familiar with all of it, and how it works. You should understand just how ridiculous it is that separately evolved races might find one another attractive. You should also understand that gimmes and handwaving aren't gifts given to you by the Science Fiction deities; they're necessary evils to be used as sparingly as possible. In short, writing good science fiction demands what executives call human capital - workers with both the intelligence and the education to get the job done. And that is one thing that Syfy lacks.

What Amos might look like in Leviathan Wakes
So far, they've tried to fill the gap by either purchasing successful literary properties (The Expanse) or hiring showrunners who have good SF track records, like Ron Moore (Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica). There are a few problems with that strategy. The first is that some of their  showrunners are well-known, but not well-liked. (I won't name names, but the man behind one of their most disappointing hard SF series is a good example.) The second is that if you don't have the internal human capital to get SF right, no book, no matter how successful, will survive your attempts to translate it to the screen. (The fact that all the characters in The Expanse will be played by actors who are yards prettier and years younger than their literary counterparts is a disturbing sign.)
What he looks like in Syfy's The Expanse

So what's a well-intentioned TV exec to do? Assuming that there is such a creature, of course - assuming that Syfy's rebranders have actually learned their lesson, and don't just regard this as one more recalibration of a content and entertainment provider - they could do what Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling did all those years ago, and hire some actual SF writers along with their screenwriting cronies. Roddenberry hired writers of classic SF - Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Jerome Bixby, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Norman Spinrad, among others - to help create the stories of Star Trek. He reached beyond Hollywood's intellectual kiddie pool to get the writers who had been playing with these ideas for years. Sure, some of the stories had to be, make it onto the screen. But that outreach also generated some of the series' most enduring episodes: The City on the Edge of Forever; Amok Time; Arena...

After all this time, after LoTR and Iron Man and Star Wars, it's still the printed word where the really wild shit happens. That's where the hard thinking takes place, and the disturbing, clever, tough-to-shake ideas first enter the world.

Your move, Syfy.

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